Glen Daugherty watches from his wooden dock, just beyond his prized pontoon boat, as a floating dredging machine growls from across the channel of the Emory River.
When it isn't broken down, the machine has been slowly sucking up tons of coal ash that spilled six months ago from the Kingston Fossil Plant a few hundred yards upriver.
The Tennessee Valley Authority, owner and operator of the giant coal-fired Kingston plant, calls this progress. Daugherty, 67, who once delivered coal from local mines to the Kingston plant, just sees shattered dreams.
"I was going to be here the rest of my life," he said. "Now I don't know what I am going to do."
A Dec. 22 breach in an earthen dike unleashed 5.4 million cubic yards of toxic-laden ash into the river and 26 lakeside homes, covering some 300 acres with grayish muck.
The 1,900-square-foot brick rancher that Glen and Evelyn Daugherty built on their little acre of paradise along the Emory River in 1991 wasn't damaged by the spill. But it's now part of the cleanup zone. Most of their neighbors have moved or are moving with buyouts from the nation's largest public utility — TVA has paid out $20 million so far.
House or health
Daugherty said TVA won't pay enough to replace his home, and he refuses to take on debt at his age.
Still, Daugherty said his wife's doctor advised them: "Which is more important to you — your house or your health? I am going to tell you right now, you better get out of there."
The Daughertys, who celebrated their 40th anniversary in February, have until July 31 to decide.
The cause of the spill is still unknown, six months after the disaster brought national attention to the regulation and risks of coal ash storage. The ash — which typically contains traces of arsenic and other toxic materials — is stored at 43 other sites in 26 communities around the country, which are so hazardous the Army Corps of Engineers won't disclose their locations.
TVA hired engineering consultants AECOM USA Inc. to study the cause. Lead consultant William Walton, based in Vernon Hills, Ill., isn't taking calls from The Associated Press.
TVA spokesman John Moulton said the document should be out this month.
‘It was an embarrassment’
A panel of engineering and environmental experts formed by the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation is waiting to review the AECOM report. So are attorneys handling a half dozen federal lawsuits filed by victims against TVA.
University of Tennessee professor emeritus Bruce Tschantz, an expert in hydrology and dam safety engineering, is on the panel, which was briefed on the report a few weeks ago.
Tschantz wouldn't reveal any conclusions, but said he hopes the final version digs deep into the decisions that led to the wall's collapse. It should explain whether such a spill could happen again — and whether it can be prevented, he said.
"My analogy is when an airplane goes down and they find out the direct reason is the wings were cracked," he said. "OK, so that is why it went down but why were the wings cracked? Why were the wings not inspected? Why were they allowed to crack? Is it because of poor management and inspection?"
Tshcantz added: "No matter what the findings are — it was an embarrassment."
This much is known. The Kingston plant's ash landfill began filling up with the byproduct of coal-fired electric generation in 1958, and the pile stood 60 feet high at the time of the spill. It was licensed to go even higher, to 80 feet, before closing in 2015. A layer of water sat on top to keep the ash from blowing away.
Two small, localized problems with the dikes were found in 2003 and 2006, according to the utility's inspector general. Otherwise, state inspectors found no deficiencies in August, and a visual inspection the afternoon before the spill turned up no problems.
TVA officials noted immediately after the spill that the temperature dropped to 14 degrees that night. President and CEO Tom Kilgore said 4.9 inches of rain fell in December — almost twice as much as normal — which could have added significant weight to the pile.
Even so, the spill could have been worse. Just more than half of the 9.5 million cubic yards of ash the site holds spilled. Kingston has the largest ash pile of any of TVA's 11 coal-fired power plants.
To date, TVA has rebuilt roads and railroad tracks, restored utilities, offered compensation to victims, opened community outreach centers and public document rooms, begun dredging and awarded a contract to ship about half the spilled ash to an Alabama landfill. The cleanup cost could reach $1 billion.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is overseeing the cleanup, which could cost $1 billion. Anda Ray, TVA's top environmental executive, said the agency is working to get the ash out of the river by next spring to prevent it from being carried downstream during a storm.
More dredges and larger dredges are on the way, Ray said, noting the progress that's been made in six months.
She pointed to the restoration of a cove known as the "Church Slough." Six months ago it was buried in ash.
"All of the ash is gone. The fauna is back. The birds are back in the spring-fed water. It is done," Ray said. "That is kind of our hope for how the rest of it will look when we are finished."