Image: destroyed homes
Wade Payne  /  AP
This Dec. 22, 2008, aerial view shows homes that were destroyed when a retention pond wall collapsed at the Tennessee Valley Authority's Kingston Fossil Plant, in Harriman, Tenn.
updated 12/27/2008 7:40:15 PM ET 2008-12-28T00:40:15

Authorities need to more strongly warn residents that muck left from a major coal-ash spill in eastern Tennessee could pose health risks, a southern environmental group said Saturday.

The Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation said Friday that the mixture of coal fly ash and water coating a neighborhood near the Kingston Fossil Plant didn't pose an immediate risk to residents unless they ingested it.

But Stephen Smith, executive director for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, said officials should more strongly encourage residents to avoid the sludge that surrounds their homes.

About 5.4 million cubic yards — more than a billion gallons — of coal fly ash, a byproduct of burning coal, broke out of a retention pond Monday at the Kingston Fossil Plant, flooding nearby houses, the Tennessee Valley Authority said. The spill damaged 12 homes and covered 300 acres with sludge in Harriman, about 35 miles west of Knoxville.

Smith said his group is not trying to create panic, but that federal and state authorities and the TVA should be erring on the side of caution in what he considers the largest coal-ash spill in the eastern U.S.

"I think all three agencies have been irresponsible in not accurately warning citizens," Smith said.

Barbara Martocci, a spokeswoman for TVA, the nation's largest utility, said Saturday that while the company has not issued an official warning not to come in contact with the ash, she encouraged people to avoid the area.

"If they do touch it, they should wash their hands," she said.

The safety of drinking water also is a concern to residents and environmentalists.

Elevated contaminant levels were found in water samples in the immediate area of the spill, but not around the intake for the Kingston Water Treatment Plant, which supplies drinking water to residents, state officials said. The state reviewed its own samples and those by the TVA and the Environmental Protection Agency.

"We are continuing to take samples to determine what is there and the drinking water still meets all the standards met by the EPA," Martocci said.

But the agencies have not yet released details on the toxicity of the ash itself, which could contain heavy metals including mercury and arsenic, according to the EPA.

Other spills such as a pond break in Kentucky in 2000 dumped about 250 million gallons of coal slurry into nearby creeks were much smaller than this one, Smith said.

"When TVA issues a statement that the drinking water is safe, that this material is inert ... it leads the community to believe that there's really no problem," Smith said. "That is absolutely not true."

Martocci said cleanup was continuing through the weekend and that crews had made progress clearing 1,000 feet of a local road that had been covered by the ash slide.

Environmentalists and the coal industry have argued for years over whether coal ash should be classified as hazardous waste, which would make it subject to more stringent regulations.

In 2000, the EPA backed away from labeling it hazardous but encouraged states to strengthen their regulations.

Greenpeace, an environmental activist group, is asking for a criminal investigation into the failure of the pond and whether TVA could have prevented the spill. The pond is used for dumping waste from burning coal at the steam plant.

Knoxville-based TVA supplies electricity to Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, Kentucky, Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Tenn. sludge gives coal a ‘black eye’

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