Image: Sign near the entrance to the Kingston Fossil Plant
Duncan Mansfield  /  AP
A sign is seen near the entrance to the Kingston Fossil Plant in Kingston, Tenn., warning the public to stay out during the cleanup of a massive coal ash spill at the plant.
updated 9/13/2009 1:52:44 PM ET 2009-09-13T17:52:44

For a Tennessee community that fears being forever linked to one of the country's worst environmental disasters, an estimated $1 billion being spent to clean up a massive coal ash spill that flooded its lakeside homes isn't enough.

Roane County leaders want millions more dollars to repair their economy and image after 5.4 million cubic yards of toxin-laden muck breached a holding pond at the Tennessee Valley Authority's Kingston Fossil Plant on Dec. 22.

"We are not trying to take advantage of anything. We didn't ask for this. We didn't go out looking for it. We are not ambulance chasers," Kingston Mayor Troy Beets said. "We are trying to recover from a hit in the mouth."

Aside from what it's spending on the cleanup, TVA has agreed to consider local governments' request for compensation that would go toward other refurbishment projects. A joint proposal drafted by top officials from local governments presents TVA with a couple of options for reimbursement, but the one drawing the most attention asks the utility to pay for a wish list of projects estimated to cost at least $40 million.

TVA has indicated it will provide some support beyond the cleanup costs and is expected to announce Monday how much it will pay.

Many projects don't relate to spill
Most projects on the local officials' list — upgrades to water lines, sewer lines and schools, construction of nature trails, and a big public relations and marketing campaign — don't directly relate to the spill. The plans were compiled by elected leaders on a special panel called the Long Term Recovery Committee.

To government leaders in the county of 78,000 people with a typical annual operating budget of $102 million, the spending is needed to offset months of negative national news coverage about the spill — especially among Rust Belt and Florida retirees shopping the Internet for a mild-climate retreat on an eastern Tennessee lake.

To TVA ratepayers, who will foot the bill for the projects on top of the $21 million TVA has spent repairing roads and utility services damaged in the disaster, the project list raises the issue of how much is fair.

"How do you recover?" Roane County Mayor Mike Farmer said. "You do something to make people forget about what today's news story is — some wonderful announcement that says we are working on a wonderful new Roane County with a new school, new ballfields and a new senior center."

For example, the list seeks $1.5 million to convert the town of Harriman's 1939-era movie house into an arts education center.

‘We want to help the county recover’
TVA President and CEO Tom Kilgore isn't immediately concerned the county is trying to capitalize on its tragedy. Utility rates in TVA's seven-state region are going up Oct. 1, in part because of the cost of the cleanup.

"We are willing to talk to them about extraordinary efforts during this time period," Kilgore told The Associated Press in an August interview. "We want to help the county recover."

But it's been hard for locals to overcome negative publicity about the spill and the continuing concerns about the impact on public health and wildlife.

Real estate agent Bob Giltnane, who specializes in Watts Bar Lake properties downstream of the Kingston plant, blames the disaster and the news coverage for nearly killing his business.

Potential buyers canceled sales after the spill, saying they felt like they "escaped a bullet," said the agent, who's suing TVA in federal court for damages. Others willing to tour post-spill property were scared off by the sight of orange-clad workers vacuuming up the muck.

"Would you tend to buy a retirement home on Three Mile Island? No. Would you tend to buy a retirement home at Love Canal? No," Giltnane said. "Well, they are not going to want to buy a retirement home on Watts Bar Lake."

‘I am going to die from an Oldsmobile, not ash’
Giltnane, though, said he's not afraid of the ash. "I drive 50,000 miles a year," he said. "I think I am going to die from an Oldsmobile, not ash."

Leslie Henderson, president and CEO of The Roane Alliance, the county's chamber of commerce, is confident TVA will clean up the spill — TVA estimates the ash will be out of the Emory River by spring and remediation complete about a year later.

But she also said, "I seriously doubt that TVA can make Roane County whole after the ash spill."

TVA has spent about $40.2 million buying up 142 properties either damaged by the spill or jeopardized by the cleanup. Scores of other properties were rejected as unqualified. Some of those rejected claims came from owners living 15 to 20 miles from the 300-acre spill site.

"We have to find a balance between doing the right thing for the folks that were impacted and dealing with the overall cost which could be absorbed by our ratepayers," TVA executive Peyton T. Hairston said.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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