Conflicted Emotions Follow Tennessee Coal Ash Spill Cleanup continues in the Tennessee coal ash spill that released more than a billion gallons of toxic sludge last week. The work is slow, and many residents highlight the complex relationship between the utility company that owns the plant and residents of the surrounding areas.
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Conflicted Emotions Follow Tennessee Coal Ash Spill

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Conflicted Emotions Follow Tennessee Coal Ash Spill

Conflicted Emotions Follow Tennessee Coal Ash Spill

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Today, the Environmental Protection Agency said it found arsenic levels more than 100 times the acceptable amount in a river near a massive spill of coal ash. Eleven days ago, an earthen dam collapsed at a Tennessee Valley Authority power plant near Kingston, Tennessee. More than a billion gallons of toxic sludge inundated hundreds of acres. The spill has caused a rift in the delicate relationship between the TVA and people who live nearby. From member station WUOT, Matt Shafer Powell reports.

MATT SHAFER POWELL: The twin smokestacks of the Kingston Fossil Plant loom like monstrous goalposts over Terry Gupton's East Tennessee farm.

Mr. TERRY GUPTON (Farmer, Kingston, Tennessee): We have 240 acres here, and we have had some land leased that we grow hay on.

SHAFER POWELL: For 10 years, Gupton's lived here, raising cattle and horses, growing corn and hay. But a thick, cement-like sludge from the TVA spill has taken over part of his property, pushing a polluted creek into the spring he uses to water his cattle.

Mr. GUPTON: It's backing up over our land, and if it has heavy metals and that kind of stuff in it, we won't be able to use the land, so that's a great concern.

SHAFER POWELL: There's a wooded spot next to the creek along the back of Gupton's property. In the past, that's where he's taken his grandchildren fishing and camping. When we get there, we step out of his pickup truck. His dog, Blue, follows us.

Mr. GUPTON: Blue, get on the truck, son. Get on the truck.

SHAFER POWELL: He sends Blue back to the truck because he's afraid it's not safe.

Mr. GUPTON: Get there. You stay. I don't want him to get in this sludge.

SHAFER POWELL: Gupton stops walking where a stained mat of corn stubble slopes into a foot-thick sea of gooey, gray mud.

Mr. GUPTON: This is about as far as I'm going.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GUPTON: You see the dead fish and no telling what all.

SHAFER POWELL: Gupton says he's not angry, like some of his neighbors. He says he's more disappointed that the TVA let this happen, and he's not sure he can believe everything the TVA tells him. And he's sad, sad that the spill has destroyed some of the farm where he and his wife, Sandy, hoped to spend their later years.

Mr. GUPTON: I don't think, you know, from what TVA says, I don't think they realize those kinds of emotions that the property owners have here.

SHAFER POWELL: Those emotions directed at the TVA range from fury to sadness to sympathy, and in the case of Steve Patterson, gratitude. Patterson's appliance store, across the street from the Kingston plant, has an electric sign that blinks bright red letters - Thank you, TVA.

Mr. STEVE PATTERSON (Owner, Patterson Home Appliance Center, Kingston, Tennessee): The quality of my life and the people in this community are directly related to the efforts of TVA, from their flood controls to their power. You know, I enjoy my electricity being on every morning, noon and night, 24 hours a day.

SHAFER POWELL: These attitudes show how complicated the relationship is between the TVA and the communities throughout the Tennessee Valley.

(Soundbite of TVA advertisement)

Unidentified Announcer: The children of the Tennessee Valley have recaptured the hope of their grandfather. They have learned that the TVA is, indeed, the yardstick, a measure of what men can build in peace...

SHAFER POWELL: The TVA has brought electricity and prosperity to previously impoverished areas of the Southeast, but it's also brought pollution and a legacy of strong-armed control over the region's land and water. Historian and author Bruce Wheeler says the TVA and the people of the valley have a deeply dependent relationship.

Dr. BRUCE WHEELER (History, University of Tennessee): It's like TVA is part of the East Tennessee, Alabama, North Carolina, Virginia, Kentucky family, and families have complex relationships. They're part of our family for good and for ill.

SHAFER POWELL: Some families are better than others at working through conflict. Whether the TVA and the residents of East Tennessee ever resolve this conflict may depend upon how long it takes the TVA to clean up the mess and whether the people living near the Kingston power plant will ever feel safe here again. For NPR News, I'm Matt Shafer Powell.

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