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Tenn. Coal Ash Spill Devastates Recovering River
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Tenn. Coal Ash Spill Devastates Recovering River

Environment

Tenn. Coal Ash Spill Devastates Recovering River

Tenn. Coal Ash Spill Devastates Recovering River
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Piles of coal ash filled in this cove near the TVA plant. i

Piles of coal ash filled in this cove on the Emory River near the Tennessee Valley Authority plant. Adam Hochberg/NPR hide caption

toggle caption Adam Hochberg/NPR
Piles of coal ash filled in this cove near the TVA plant.

Piles of coal ash filled in this cove on the Emory River near the Tennessee Valley Authority plant.

Adam Hochberg/NPR

More About The Spill

Pulling out dead fish from the river. i

Appalachian State University biologist Shea Tuberty and Anna George of the Tennessee Aquarium pull dead fish from ash-laden river detritus. Adam Hochberg/NPR hide caption

toggle caption Adam Hochberg/NPR
Pulling out dead fish from the river.

Appalachian State University biologist Shea Tuberty and Anna George of the Tennessee Aquarium pull dead fish from ash-laden river detritus.

Adam Hochberg/NPR
Contamination testing. i

A map shows points where river water is being tested for contamination. Red circles indicate testing done by the Tennessee Valley Authority, and green stars indicate sampling points by the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation. Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation hide caption

toggle caption Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation
Contamination testing.

A map shows points where river water is being tested for contamination. Red circles indicate testing done by the Tennessee Valley Authority, and green stars indicate sampling points by the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation.

Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation

Even before 1 billion gallons of coal ash sludge flooded the land and fouled the Emory River in Eastern Tennessee, decades of industrial contamination and farm runoff had left the river polluted and made some fish unsafe to eat.

But now the December 2008 spill has transformed part of this already endangered river into something that barely resembles a river at all.

Biologist Bobby Brown of the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency has responded to many emergencies on the Emory over the years, involving fish kills and chemical spills and more. But during a recent boat trip up the river, he said the coal ash inundation is far worse than anything he's seen — and far worse than anything he ever thought he would see.

"You can see in between this white house and this house off of North Shore Drive here," he says as he steers the boat toward a small inlet. Piles of fly ash and debris stand where water once flowed. "That's one of the coves that's completely filled in."

The Dec. 22 spill at the Tennessee Valley Authority's Kingston Fossil Plant destroyed three homes, covered nearly 300 acres with grayish muck and contaminated nearby waters.

Fishing For What's Left

Brown's agency and several others have begun trying to measure the spill's effect on the environment. They know hundreds of fish were killed instantly when a dike at the TVA plant collapsed and sent a 60-foot mountain of ash tumbling down. Scientists are examining fish that survived to see how they're doing after spending almost three weeks in the gray, chemical-laden water.

"What we're doing right now is just trying to figure out what fish are still here and what fish are surviving," says Anna George of the Tennessee Aquarium. She's part of a crew that's traversing the Emory and two nearby rivers, catching fish with big nets and trying to determine what effect the spill had on different species. "We're hoping to capture some catfish and some black bass," she says. "Those will be used for analysis of the levels of different contaminants in their bodies."

The researchers are spending much of their time in the waters adjacent to the Kingston plant — waters so full of residue that at one point the surface was dotted with what the research team calls "ashbergs." But crews also are taking measurements farther downstream, where things appear normal on the surface but are polluted below.

Using a claw device, Appalachian State University biologist Shea Tuberty scoops sediment samples from the river bottom. As he digs about five inches down, he finds the contamination worse than he feared.

"We expected to see a rich, dark sediment covered with a light layer of ash," Tuberty reports. "But the entire thing was ash."

In a clean body of water, he says, the sample would have been a mixture of twigs and leaves that might have had living things in it. Instead, the sediment he has pulled up is completely devoid of life. "It looks like something you would have got off the moon," he says.

Setback For Restoration Efforts Feared

From an environmental standpoint, the spill is especially frustrating to people who work this river, because they had already been making slow progress cleaning it up.

Before the spill, restoration was under way on parts of the Emory as well on as the Tennessee River, which connects with the Emory. The state aquarium also has been trying to reintroduce endangered lake sturgeon into the river system. Riverkeeper Donna Lisenby of the group Appalachian Voices worries the spill will set those efforts back severely.

"If this site follows the pattern of previous sites that have had similar contamination, much of the aquatic life here will be devastated," Lisenby says. "And sometimes it will be the next generation of fish, as they attempt to reproduce, that show some of the effects."

The TVA has promised to clean up the Emory, but hasn't said when that will happen, how much it will cost or exactly how it will be accomplished. Lisenby predicts it will be 20 years or more before the river begins to resemble what it looked like before the sludge.

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