KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — The state of Tennessee demanded answers and cooperation Tuesday from the nation's largest public utility in the aftermath of a massive coal ash flood that is costing the utility $1 million a day to mop up.
"I am committed to making sure this spill is cleaned up and doing everything we can to prevent any similar situation in the future," Gov. Phil Bredesen said in a statement. "I'm also committed to make sure Tennessee taxpayers don't foot the bill."
Bredesen promised greater state oversight when he visited the Tennessee Valley Authority's Kingston Fossil Plant shortly after the Dec. 22 spill sent 1.1 billion gallons of ash and sludge into a rural neighborhood surrounding the plant, about 40 miles west of Knoxville.
The enforcement order announced by Bredesen and Environment and Conservation Commissioner Jim Fyke reaffirms and formalizes that process, Fyke spokeswoman Tisha Calabrese-Benton said.
"TVA has been cooperative up to this point and we are hopeful that continues under the order," Calabrese-Benton said.
The order requires the federal agency's full cooperation in assessing the mishap and developing a corrective action plan within 45 days to "ensure safe operations in the future." The order also says TVA will reimburse the state for overseeing the cleanup and could be subject to fines later.
"TVA is committed to cleaning up and restoring this site, and to managing all of its facilities in a manner that will prevent a similar situation," according to statement from TVA, which operates 11 coal-fired plants, including eight in Tennessee. "TVA agrees with the (order's) priorities and is working hard to achieve them."
In a second incident, about 10,000 gallons spilled from a gypsum waste pond at TVA's Widows Creek power station in northeastern Alabama on Friday. Initial tests found drinking water still safe in the area.
The mishaps have brought national attention to the millions of tons of toxic coal ash piling up in power plant ponds in 32 states that could threaten public health, and the need for greater federal oversight by the Environmental Protection Agency, which is involved in the Kingston recovery project.
Continued monitoring around the Kingston Fossil Plant has found both air and drinking water are safe.
But the ash is now killing fish. Catfish and black bass caught this week in the Clinch and Emory rivers within a mile of the Kingston plant were found to have gills "completely coated in ash," according to Dan Hicks, spokesman for the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency.
"These fish are stressed and we know that a stressed fish is usually a dead fish," he said.
The heavy volume of ash on the water's surface and settling into the sediment was responsible, not any heavy metals in the ash, he said. Lab tests to measure toxins in fish tissue will take several weeks. Warnings against eating fish because of chemical contamination were already posted before the spill.
TVA officials say the cost of the cleanup will be borne in the electric rates of the 9 million consumers TVA serves across Tennessee and parts of Alabama, Kentucky, Mississippi, Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia.
Under its order, Tennessee has given TVA 20 days to submit "all existing studies, reports and memoranda" that could help explain the failure of the ash containment pond, which was created in 1958 and experienced small leaks in 2003 and 2006.
TVA has hundreds of people and more than 80 pieces of heavy equipment, including amphibious trackhoes, uncovering roads, clearing debris, scooping up loose contaminants in the water and building subsurface walls in the river to collect ash. Helicopters have dropped some 80 tons of grass seed on the site to hold the ash in place.
TVA figures it is spending about $1 million a day on the cleanup, spokesman John Moulton said. "That does not include any long-range costs, what it would cost to repair, what it would cost to store (the ash) in a different manner. We don't have those (figures) yet," he said.
Dredging the river is still a few weeks away and plans on how to do it are still being developed. Environmentalists worry about digging up the bottom of Watts Bar Lake, a Tennessee River reservoir downstream. Mercury and radioactive cesium from World War II nuclear-bomb building work at Oak Ridge are in Watts Bar's sediments and officials decided in the 1990s it was better to leave the deposits undisturbed.
Six of TVA's coal-fired power plants use wet-ash disposal, including Kingston. The agency is considering converting Kingston to a dry-ash system that wouldn't require retention ponds.
The other wet-ash plants are Allen in Memphis, Gallatin near Nashville, Johnsonville in Waverly, Paradise in Drakesboro, Ky., and Widows Creek in Stevenson, Ala. TVA is re-inspecting all of them.
Meanwhile, the agency is hiring a consultant to find the cause of the mishap, believed to have started with a breach in the ash pile's north containment wall, possibly due to stress from the weight of 1 million gallons of water pumped onto the pile to keep the ash from becoming airborne and a sudden drop in temperature.
TVA's independent inspector general's office also is conducting its own investigation.
"This is going to be a long recovery project between now and when we declare victory," Kingston maintenance manager Bob Rehberg said.