Image: Sludge-covered area
Wade Payne  /  AP
This area near Harriman, Tenn., was flooded by a billion gallons of coal waste.
updated 12/29/2008 3:12:54 PM ET 2008-12-29T20:12:54

The spill of more than a billion gallons of coal ash from a power plant in East Tennessee may change the way the nation's largest government-owned utility stores coal waste.

Roane County officials are pushing the Tennessee Valley Authority to quit using large retention ponds filled with water and fly ash, a byproduct of coal-fired power plants.

One of the ponds burst Dec. 22 at a plant roughly 35 miles west of Knoxville, sending a flood of gray sludge over about 300 acres and destroying three homes along the Clinch River.

Roane County Executive Mike Farmer said Monday he doesn't expect to see such holding ponds on the TVA property in the future.

TVA Chief Executive Tom Kilgore also told residents at a meeting Sunday that his agency is reviewing storage options at the plant.

Kilgore fielded questions from more than 200 residents worried about everything from property values to livestock that could ingest contaminated water or grass.

Worries once the muck dries out
Sandy Dickman, whose land remains covered by several feet of gray muck, said he doesn't think he'll be drinking the water. And he dreaded what might happen after the mire dries out and could become airborne, despite the utility's promise to test air quality and local wells.

"It will look like a blizzard in the Arctic," said Dickman, who moved to the area in 1975 and said he always suspected such a flood could happen.

Others at the meeting carried anti-coal industry signs, including one that said "Clean Coal is a myth."

Officials at the utility have said the water is safe to drink. The ash was stored in a retention pond at TVA's Kingston Fossil Plant. Some also was dumped into the Emory River.

"This is not a time when TVA holds its head high. I'm here to say we are going to clean it up and we are going to clean it up right," Kilgore said. He said TVA would pay for the water and air tests, but could not say how long cleanup would take.

The Environmental Protection Agency also said in a press release Sunday that people should be safe unless they drink untreated river water. The EPA found elevated levels of arsenic in some surface water, but said the poison was not detected in samples taken near the intake for the Kingston Water Treatment Plant, which supplies drinking water.

The Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation has also said elevated contaminant levels were found in water samples in the immediate area of the spill, but not around the plant's intake.

Dozens of properties damaged
Three homes were destroyed and 42 property owners had damage of some kind, according to Roane County emergency management officials.

Crystell Flinn's home was among those destroyed by the ash slide, her belongings swept away only three days before Christmas. Now, she and her family are living in a hotel paid for by TVA. Kilgore said the utility was providing for the short-term needs of three families, but Flinn said there is nothing to return to.

"It looks like a tsunami," Flinn said. "It's not like they can scoop it up and scrape it off."

Kilgore was asked again Sunday what caused the dike to fail. He said TVA is still investigating, but utility officials have said cold weather and above-normal rains were contributing factors.

The Southern Alliance for Clean Energy said Saturday that authorities should more strongly warn residents that muck from the spill could pose health risks.

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: Sludge devours neighborhood

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