Tennessee Sludge Spill Community's Future Clouded (SLIDESHOW)
HARRIMAN, Tenn. -- Tom Grizzard wonders what the future holds for a spot that once seemed the perfect place to live. His pastoral enclave boasted vistas of tree-covered hills, glimpses of the Emory River and access to fishing holes and hunting havens.
"We like it here. I'd like to die here," Grizzard said of the Swan Pond area he's called home for more than five decades.
Now much of it is shrouded in sludge after a billion gallons of coal ash spilled from a retention pond at a Tennessee Valley Authority power plant last week.
Three homes were destroyed and 42 parcels of land were damaged. The 200 acres Grizzard and his relatives own weren't soiled, but he's worried Swan Pond will be dealing with fallout from the disaster for a long time.
Since the Kingston Steam Plant was built in 1955, the area's farmland has slowly been converted to smaller lots with large two-story brick homes interspersed with modest ranch and split-level homes and some mobile homes. All have a view of the plant's 1,000-foot-tall smokestacks across the river.
Some of the first residents in the area were workers at the plant. Most of the people who work there now are contractors from outside the area.
Grizzard and his two sons, Mike and Tom, spend a lot of time hunting and fishing on their land along the river, often right near the TVA plant.
"Those two slews that were very drastically filled with the fly ash were two of the best crappie fishing holes," he said. "Especially in the spring, there will be as many as 20 people down there fishing every day."
Grizzard shot his first two geese near the plant in 1961. He retrieved one of them from the ash pile that would eventually become the pond that burst.
He couldn't get to the ash pile now if he tried. The main road into the neighborhood is blocked after being covered in sludge. Police are stationed at various points along the road to make sure only officials get through. Swan Pond residents must take back roads and school buses will have to be rerouted.
A massive cleanup effort has begun, but no one knows how long it could take because there's never been an ash spill this large in the United States. It's unclear whether the arsenic and heavy metals in the fly ash threaten the water, air and soil. It's also unclear how much exposure to the toxic elements could threaten people's health.
No one thinks recovery will be quick.
Larry Preece's property near Inez, Ky., was swamped with coal ash sludge eight years ago in a similar spill of more than 300 million gallons. He has some advice for Swan Pond residents: "Be prepared for a long ordeal."
Despite a cleanup and the passing of years, Preece said he still worries about contamination. Traces of arsenic, mercury and other contaminants were found in the Kentucky sludge, according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, based at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.
A year after that spill, all visible signs of coal waste had been removed and lush vegetation had again sprouted. But Preece said soil beneath the carpet of newly planted grass is still speckled with black particles.
Like state and federal environmental officials, Grizzard is concerned about the fly ash drying out, becoming airborne and blowing to Tennessee home sites not initially affected by the sludge.
With that uncertainty, residents are worried about the value of their homes and land.
Grizzard said he heard a neighbor's relative was trying to sell his summer home nearby for around $400,000. Now, he said, that homeowner thinks he'll be lucky to get $100,000.
The TVA has promised to get real estate agents for the displaced residents and find them housing for as long as needed.
The two families whose homes received the most damage _ Janice and James Perry and Crystell Flinn and James Schean _ told Gov. Phil Bredesen after he toured the spill site on Wednesday that they loved the neighborhood so much they didn't want to relocate.
The Grizzards also aren't willing to leave the land once owned by Tom's grandfather.
Tom's son Mike trekked into the ashen muck Tuesday to do some hunting. He returned just before lunchtime without any game, deciding not to shoot three does he spied.
"It's a great spot," he said. "I love it here. It's always been home."