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Tenn. gov. pledges more oversight of ash ponds

/ Source: The Associated Press

Tennessee's governor promised greater oversight of coal ash retention ponds Wednesday after viewing damage from a spill that released more than a billion gallons of ashy sludge.

Gov. Phil Bredesen said he had no complaints with the cleanup process by Tennessee Valley Authority, which operates the Kingston power plant where a pond burst last week and poured a mix of fly ash and water over 300 acres and into a river.

But Bredesen vowed state environmental regulators will be "looking over their shoulder."

"Burning fossil fuel for electricity is a dirty business," he said. "Everywhere this happens there are huge ash piles, there are environmental issues. My dream out of all of this is maybe this is an epiphany for TVA and for the country that some things have got to change."

Congress will hold a hearing on the spill next week. The Senate Environment Committee is scheduled to hear testimony Thursday from TVA President and CEO Tom Kilgore, environmental advocates and local officials who responded to the disaster.

Other retention ponds being inspected
Bredesen said the state is launching immediate inspections of all other TVA retention ponds and a review of state regulations for the ponds.

"The regulations we operate under now were written in the '70s; 2009 is a different world in terms of environmental regulation than the 1970s," he said.

The state will conduct daily tests of water sources for the cities of Kingston and Rockwood until the threat of contamination from arsenic and heavy metals in the sludge has passed.

Bredesen spoke briefly to the media Wednesday after flying over the site of the spill, taking a short walking tour in the affected area and visiting with some of the families displaced by the incident.

Also Wednesday, the Roane County school system announced that schools will resume as scheduled Monday following a two-week winter break.

Though authorities have said municipal water sources are safe, school cafeteria workers will use bottled water to prepare meals and bottled water will be offered for sale at schools, according to a news release on the school system's web site.

Only three out of the county's 18 schools were directly affected by the spill. Bus routes for students at those schools have been adjusted.

The Kingston Steam Plant sits on the confluence of two rivers, about 35 miles west of Knoxville.

Homes destroyed by deluge
The deluge destroyed three houses, displaced a dozen families and damaged 42 parcels of land, but there were no serious injuries.

No one at TVA can say how long the cleanup will take and how thorough the restoration can be.

"This obviously is a massive disaster," Bredesen said. "We don't know what the long-term environmental effects of something this size are. We can speculate all we want or like, but to my knowledge there's not been one this large in the past in this country."

Bredesen said he chose to wait more than a week before touring the area because there was no loss of life and he's found in past disasters politicians sometimes hindered the clean-up process.

On Monday, federal officials cautioned residents who use private wells or springs to stop drinking the water because some tests in the area had found elevated levels of arsenic, which can be toxic.

On Tuesday, a group of land owners sued the TVA for $165 million, claiming their property values had been damaged by the spill.

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