Standing on a porch near the Widows Creek power plant Saturday, Charlie Cookston took a drag off a cigarette and ticked off the reasons he distrusts the Tennessee Valley Authority.
Dead mussels in the mighty, meandering Tennessee River. Dwindling numbers of fish. Big, black piles of coal ash that seem to get larger every day.
As nearby residents await lab tests on the safety of drinking water, tempers are unsettled. Electric rates at the nation's largest utility have soared. A dike burst in Tennessee destroyed several homes, and on Friday, as much as 10,000 gallons of waste spilled into Widows Creek in northeastern Alabama.
The nation's largest utility, once was viewed as a savior to the region, bringing lights, thousands of jobs and progress since its creation as a New Deal program in 1933, has had a rocky few months.
"We ain't trusted TVA around here since back in the '50s," said Cookston, 59, who runs bulldozers and other heavy equipment for a living.
"Their rates on power are as cheap as anybody," he said, looking toward the plant stacks. But "I think there's a lot more going on down there than we'll ever know."
Rate hikes, sludge spills
The back-to-back spills followed a 20 percent rate increase announced in October — the largest spike since 1974 — and a decision to grant CEO Tom Kilgore a pay raise of about $500,000. On top of that, the utility said in November it would reduce its weed-control work in two reservoirs.
The rate hike was trimmed by about 6 percent to offer some relief beginning Jan. 1. And TVA spokesman Gil Francis denied that the Knoxville, Tenn.-based utility had any image problem.
"I have not seen any customer frustrations," he said.
But Scott Stout, a spokesman for the Roane County Emergency Management Agency in Tennessee, understands the anxiety. He helped coordinate the response to the huge ash spill at the Kingston Fossil Plant on Dec. 22.
"I am not happy about what has happened," Stout said. "But you can't unring that bell."
TVA has been a friend for years, operating dams that created beautiful lakes for water and recreation. Its response to the Kingston spill has been good so far, Stout said.
"I am happy with what I am seeing them do. Now two months from now, three months from now, I'd love to say the same thing," said Stout.
The utility provides electricity to 8.8 million consumers in Alabama, Tennessee, Mississippi, Kentucky, Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia. It's as much a part of the valley landscape as hardwood forests and craggy cliffs overlooking two-lane roads.
At the Discount Food Mart in Stevenson, 65-year-old Frances Lanier said TVA is a major employer in the town of about 1,770 people. "The people love them," she said.
But, Lanier said, there's also concern among some about pollution from the Widows Creek plant, located just upstream from the old city where Union and Confederate troops fought for control of a key rail line during the Civil War.
TVA said the mishap at the Widows Creek plant presented no danger to people or the environment, and the local water provider, Stevenson Utilities, hasn't issued any warning against drinking the water. Lab results are expected Monday.
The utility said a 147-acre retention pond leaked water laced with calcium sulfate, a component of gypsum, which is released when coal burns. TVA said a leaking pipe was likely to blame.
By the time the discharge was stopped after a few hours, the spill had run into an adjacent pond and overflowed into Widows Creek, which flows into the Tennessee River.
The Environmental Protection Administration said it would test whether the spill was harmful.
Last month, a dike burst at a TVA plant near Kingston, Tenn., releasing more than 1 billion gallons of toxic-laden coal ash that spewed into a neighborhood. No one was hurt, but environmental groups said the accident was proof of the need for more regulation.
Resident Christopher Copeland, 45, was packing up Saturday with his wife and two children to move to a temporary home TVA is leasing for them.
"We are upset right now about what has happened but are really hoping the spill was truly an accident and TVA wasn't cutting corners to save costs by not maintaining the retention pond," said Copeland, whose family was still not drinking the local water. "We aren't getting enough information. They don't really have a good grasp on how long it will take to clean up. Our perceptions about this ash spill are different. For us it has been an eternity, but for TVA it has been just a few days."
And Cookston, standing outside the Bolivar This and That Restaurant in Stevenson, a dimly lit eatery with wooden floors, said the Kingston spill set off worries.
"We were sitting here just a few days ago, talking about the possibility of this happening here," he said. "And it happened."