NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Authorities need to more strongly warn residents that muck left from a major coal-ash spill in eastern Tennessee could pose health risks, a southern environmental group said Saturday.
The Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation said Friday that the mixture of coal fly ash and water coating a neighborhood near the Kingston Fossil Plant didn't pose an immediate risk to residents unless they ingested it.
But Stephen Smith, executive director for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, said officials should more strongly encourage residents to avoid the sludge that surrounds their homes.
About 5.4 million cubic yards _ more than a billion gallons _ of coal fly ash, a byproduct of burning coal, broke out of a retention pond Monday at the Kingston Fossil Plant, flooding nearby houses, the Tennessee Valley Authority said. The spill damaged 12 homes and covered 300 acres with sludge in Harriman, about 35 miles west of Knoxville.
Smith said his group is not trying to create panic, but that federal and state authorities and the TVA should be erring on the side of caution in what he considers the largest coal-ash spill in the eastern U.S.
"I think all three agencies have been irresponsible in not accurately warning citizens," Smith said.
Barbara Martocci, a spokeswoman for TVA, the nation's largest utility, said Saturday that while the company has not issued an official warning not to come in contact with the ash, she encouraged people to avoid the area.
"If they do touch it, they should wash their hands," she said.
The safety of drinking water also is a concern to residents and environmentalists.
Elevated contaminant levels were found in water samples in the immediate area of the spill, including lead and thallium, but TVA said those chemicals are filtered out through the normal water treatment process.
Water sample data from the intake for the Kingston Water Treatment Plant, which supplies drinking water to residents, showed slight elevations in iron and manganese concentrations, but they were still within drinking water standards, TVA said.
TVA also said Saturday that the residue floating on top of the water was caused by cenospheres, a sand-like material that is being skimmed off the surface and sucked up by a flat barge.
"We are continuing to take samples to determine what is there and the drinking water still meets all the standards set by the EPA," Martocci said.
But the agencies have not yet released details on the toxicity of the ash itself, which could contain heavy metals including mercury and arsenic, according to the EPA.
Other spills such as a pond break in Kentucky in 2000 dumped about 250 million gallons of coal slurry into nearby creeks were much smaller than this one, Smith said.
"When TVA issues a statement that the drinking water is safe, that this material is inert ... it leads the community to believe that there's really no problem," Smith said. "That is absolutely not true."
Martocci said cleanup was continuing through the weekend and that crews had made progress clearing 1,000 feet of a local road that had been covered by the ash slide. TVA officials have said six inches of rain in 10 days and overnight temperatures in the teens contributed to the rupture of the dike on the retention pond.
State officials were also trying to stem the flow of the ash by building a submerged dam, or weir, across the channel of the Emory River to allow water to flow while catching the ash at the bottom. The power plant is along the Emory River, which joins the Clinch River and flows into the main Tennessee River.
The retention pond was one of a series of holding areas where ash generated by one of TVA's 11 coal-fired plants was dried until it could be buried or recycled for road beds and concrete. The ash piles at times reached 55 feet above the water.
Environmentalists and the coal industry have argued for years over whether coal ash should be classified as hazardous waste, which would make it subject to more stringent regulations. In 2000, the EPA backed away from labeling it hazardous but encouraged states to strengthen their regulations.
Greenpeace, an environmental activist group, is asking for a criminal investigation into the failure of the pond and whether TVA could have prevented the spill.
Knoxville-based TVA supplies electricity to Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, Kentucky, Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia.