The Kingston Fossil Plant at Harriman, located 40 miles west of Knoxville, is now surrounded by emergency crews, clean-up contractors, environmental groups, and homeowners, working to determine what caused the break and what harmful chemicals may have infected the water and, potentially, the air.
So far, “very high” traces of arsenic, lead, and thallium have been found in the Emory River a mile and a half downstream from the plant, said Laura Niles, spokesperson for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The toxins, which are known to cause birth defects and nervous and reproductive disorders, pose significant risk since the Emory River feeds into the Clinch River and the Tennessee River.
Residents are being cautioned against drinking tap or well water although Ms. Niles said the toxins had not yet been found near the water treatment plant near Kingston. John Moulton, spokesperson for the TVA, said the company is building an underwater rock wall at the base of the Emory River to catch sediment.
The bulk of the coal ash “is inert,” he said, adding that if higher than normal levels of metal were found in the water, it would be filtered out by the treatment plant.
As sampling continues, the disaster has renewed the debate over the efficiency of coal power and the EPA’s role in regulating storage and distribution of its waste.
At least half of all electrical power in the US is generated by coal-fired power plants, located mostly in the Southeast. In 2007, electric utilities and independent power producers consumed about 1 billion tons of coal, representing 93 percent of all coal produced in the US that year.
The high consumption results in about 125 million tons of waste, which is traditionally cooled and stored in landfills.