SCOTT SIMON, host:
Scientists in Eastern Tennessee are trying to measure the environmental impact of last month's massive coal ash spill. Some 300 acres of land and water were inundated with the thick sludge when a holding pond burst at a Tennessee Valley Authority power plant. Biologists worry that the effect on fish and wildlife will be severe. NPR's Adam Hochberg reports from Kingston, Tennessee.
ADAM HOCHBERG: Even before a billion gallons of coal sludge flooded the Emory River, the waters here were under stress. Decades of industrial contamination and farm runoff left the river polluted and made some of its fish unsafe to eat. Now the coal spill has transformed part of this already endangered river into something that barely resembles a river at all.
Mr. BOBBY BROWN (Biologist, Tennessee Wildlife Resourcces Agency): Back behind you here, you can see a lot of the ash that's in the Emory itself. The channel used to go right straight around here and hook to the right, but the channel is pretty much completely filled in now.
HOCHBERG: Biologist Bobby Brown of the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency has responded to many emergencies over the years on this river - fish kills and chemical spills and the like. But as he piloted his boat up the Emory this week, he called the coal ash inundation far worse than anything he's seen - indeed far worse than anything he ever thought he would see. He steered the boat toward a small inlet where flowing water has been replaced by stagnant gray muck.
Mr. BROWN: You can see in between this white house and this house off of North Shore Drive here, that's one of the coves that's completely filled in.
HOCHBERG: That was navigable back there. You could bring a boat back there.
Mr. BROWN: Yes, you could.
HOCHBERG: And now it's just piles of...
Mr. BROWN: Piles of this fly ash and debris.
HOCHBERG: This week Brown's agency and several others began trying to measure the spill's effect on the environment. They know hundreds of fish were killed instantly when the earthened dam broke and sent a 60-foot mountain of ash tumbling into the river. Now scientists are examining the fish that survived the avalanche to see how they're doing after spending almost three weeks in the gray, chemical-laden water.
Dr. ANNA GEORGE (Director and Chief Research Scientist, Tennessee Aquarium Research Institute): We got some tiny bluegills. Do you guys see anything besides (unintelligible)?
HOCHBERG: Anna George of the Tennessee Aquarium is part of a crew that's traversing the Emory and two nearby rivers catching fish with big nets.
Dr. GEORGE: What we're doing right now is just trying to figure out what fish are still here and what fish are surviving. So you're trying to determine if the spill had any effect on what fish are found here. The other reason we're doing this is we're hoping to capture some catfish and some black bass, and those will be used for analysis of the levels of different contaminants in their bodies.
HOCHBERG: The researchers are spending much of their time in the waters adjacent to the TVA plant, waters that were so full of residue that the surface at one point was dotted with what the research team calls "ashbergs." But crews also are taking measurements further downstream where things appear normal on the surface but are polluted below.
Dr. SHEA TUBERTY (Biologist, Appalachian State University): Give me - let's try to do that conical 50 ml tube thing...
HOCHBERG: 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.
Dr. TUBERTY: We expected to see a rich, dark sediment covered with a light layer of ash, but the entire thing was ash.
HOCHBERG: In a clean body of water, that would have been, what, dirt and...?
Dr. TUBERTY: It would have been a mixture of twigs and leaves that may or may not have had invertebrates living in it.
HOCHBERG: And instead you've got ash and nothing living in it?
Dr. TUBERTY: Nothing living in it, completely devoid of life. It looks like something you would have gotten off the moon.
HOCHBERG: Of course, from an environmental standpoint, there's never a good time for a coal ash spill. But the timing of this one is especially frustrating to people who work this river because they had been making slow progress cleaning it up. Before the spill, restoration was under way on parts of the Emory as well as on the Tennessee River where the Emory's waters eventually flow. The state aquarium has been trying to reintroduce endangered lake sturgeon into the river system. Riverkeeper Donna Lisenby of the group Appalachian Voices worries the spill will severely set back those efforts.
Ms. DONNA LISENBY (Riverkeeper, Appalachian Voices): If this site follows the pattern of previous sites that have had similar contamination, much of the aquatic life here will be devastated, and sometimes it will be the next generation of fish, as they attempt to reproduce, that show some of the effects.
HOCHBERG: The TVA has promised to clean up this river, though the utility 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 Emory begins to resemble what it used to look like before the spill. Adam Hochberg, NPR News, Kingston, Tennessee.
SIMON: To see photos of the devastation and find out more about the potential environmental impact, you can come to our Web site, npr.org.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.