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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Robert Siegel. In the hill country of eastern Tennessee, residents today surveyed a vast spill of wet coal ash that swamped a dozen homes and hundreds of acres. Five-point-four million cubic yards of the sludge burst through an earthen dam in the town of Kingston this past Monday. As NPR's Tamara Keith reports, work crews are still struggling with the mess.

(Soundbite of construction site)

TAMARA KEITH: At the Tennessee Valley Authority's Kingston Fossil Plant, big yellow earth movers and backhoes and dump trucks are busy. Workers are trying to move millions of pounds of soggy ash back to the artificial mountain where it came from. The ash coats a half mile square, sometimes as deep as 10 or 12 feet. Roads are blocked, and so are the train tracks that bring coal to this power facility that serves nearly 700,000 people. The plant is still running, though at a reduced capacity, and plant manager Ronald Hall says there's enough coal to last 30 to 50 days.

Mr. RONALD HALL (Plant Manager, Kingston Fossil Plant, Tennessee Valley Authority): We're not that concerned with coal right now. We're concerned with the impacts to the community and being able to have access to get to the other areas, so we can work with our equipment to get it cleaned up.

KEITH: TVA's environmental executive, Anda Ray, says tests of sludge and area drinking-water supplies show that this massive spill isn't threatening human health. There are concerns about what happens when the ash dries out and could become airborne. But for now, Ray says there are other things for residents to worry about.

Ms. ANDA RAY (Senior Vice President, Environment and Research, Environmental Executive, Tennessee Valley Authority): Their issues are getting their lives back to normal. Am I going to get my aesthetics back? Is my property value going to go down? Do I have a health situation? So, those are the areas that we're putting as number-one priority to address those.

KEITH: Tom and Wendy Vereb recently put their home on Lakeshore Drive up for sale. The house backed up to a lovely little cove and had a water view out front, too. Wendy says there was even an interested buyer.

Ms. WENDY VEREB (Resident, Kingston, Tennessee): But she was definitely going to come, she was interested, and I can't see that happening anymore. I think that she's not going to come and say, you know, oh, this is the place I want to be, because it's not the place Tom and I want to be right now.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. VEREB: This is just sad. It's very sad.

KEITH: Their house now backs up on an almost solid lake of ashy muck. Tom Vereb says it makes him think of the aftermath of Mount St. Helens.

Mr. TOM VEREB (Resident, Kingston, Tennessee): I mean, that's what it looks like. It's ash; its dirty, muddy ash.

KEITH: With uprooted trees poking out of the sludge. The couple won't let their dogs play out here anymore because they just don't know how hazardous the ash might be. They are not entirely reassured by word from the TVA that the sludge isn't toxic.

Mr. VEREB: You know, you read in the papers that, you know, there's all kinds of dangerous material in this stuff. It's hard to say. You know, we don't know if it is or not. But we definitely know that it's not a beautiful, serene water setting.

KEITH: For many in the environmental community long opposed to coal-burning power plants, this spill is a form of validation. Someone has posted handwritten signs all over the affected area that say, clean coal, question mark. Chandra Taylor is a staff attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center. Even before this spill, her organization called for a ban on the type of ash storage used at the Kingston facility.

Ms. CHANDRA TAYLOR (Staff Attorney, Southern Environmental Law Center): This has, kind of, showed us all at once this type of catastrophe can happen, but we need to be concerned about what's in this coal waste because it can really affect the natural environment and human health over the course of time.

KEITH: On the ground in Tennessee, environmental officials are trying to make sure that the ash doesn't spread into more waterways. Paul Sloan is deputy commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation.

Mr. PAUL SLOAN (Deputy Commissioner, Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation): We think it is manageable. We think that in terms of human health, we have made immediate assessment of the intakes for water supply. We're comfortable that we're OK there now. From what I would call a chronic perspective, having this ash on this landscape for long periods of time, that'll be something that we'll be looking at and will deal with it.

KEITH: Regardless of human health effects, or even whether the ash is toxic or not, there's no question this spill is a mess of massive proportions. Tamara Keith, NPR News, Kingston, Tennessee.

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