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TVA Knew ‘for Decades’ of Dangers|at Coal Plant, Disaster Victims Say

KNOXVILLE (CN) - The Tennessee Valley Authority's massive spill of coal fly ash from its Kingston Steam Plant came "decades" after the TVA learned of problems in its giant retention pond, but used cheap fixes to save money, a class action claims in Federal Court.

The Dec. 22 catastrophe spilled 1.1 billion gallons of fly ash contaminated with toxic metals across 600 acres, driving people from their homes, fouling the Clinch and Emory Rivers and covering property more than 6 feet deep in carcinogenic sludge.

The spill came when an earthen dike broke at a 40-acre retention pond. The fly ash contains toxic and carcinogenic chemicals that include arsenic, barium, beryllium, cadmium, chromium, cobalt, lead, magnesium, manganese, mercury, selenium, thallium and other metals. "The EPA has found 'very high' levels of arsenic in water samples taken near the spill, and has released data showing levels of arsenic exceeding 100 times safe levels in the water," the complaint states.

Lead plaintiff Larry Mays says the TVA's negligence ruined property and endangered and annoyed residents. The plant burned 14,000 tons of coal a day and supplied electricity to 670,000 households, according to the complaints.

Fly ash is the residue of the burned, powdered coal. Mays claims the Kingston Plant's retention pond had leaked twice since 2002. In the Dec. 22, 2008 spill - the largest in U.S. history - "5.4 million cubic yards of the sludge slid away. The fly ash rose 55 feet above the banks of the Emory River, which flows into the Clinch River and then the Tennessee, covering hundreds of acres in muck, causing a tidal wave of water and ash that also covered at least 12 homes, pushing one entirely off its foundation, rendering at least three uninhabitable, and cause damaged to 42 residential properties. At least 22 properties were evacuated. It also washed out a road, ruptured a major gas line, and destroyed power lines. The spill killed a huge number of fish that are washing up on the shores of several rivers, whose waters are opaque with gray ash, and compromised the water supply for millions of people living downstream in Tennessee, Alabama, and Kentucky."

The complaint says that 6 inches of rain in 10 days caused or contributed to the spill. It adds: "An October 2008 inspection report had identified a 'minor leak' in the faulty wall, but the report was not finalized. Local residents reported that the spill was not a unique occurrence; the 1960s-era pond had been observed leaking, and being repaired, nearly every years since 2001, and a TVA news release confirmed that there had been two prior cases of seepage, in 2003 and 2006. ...

"While TVA hasn't ended its official probe into the cause of the failure, the report indicates the agency knew about leaks at the site for more than two decades and opted not to pay for long-term solutions to the problem. The report details a Dec. 4, 2007, site inspection of the structural stability of the pool that crumbled on Dec. 22, 2008.

"According to the February 2008 report, seeps along the bottom of the dike where it blew open have been known for perhaps as long as a quarter century, though inspectors in 2007 didn't find any wet spots. Over the past five years, the dikes have been prone to leaking except when repairs were being made, according to the report."

The TVA knew as early as 2003 that a "global fix" was needed, but chose to deal with the problem more cheaply, according to the complaint. "In November 2003, a leak along the bottom of the dike forced TVA to cease depositing fly ash into the pond's dredge cells. TVA considered at least eight options to address the leak, according to a Dec. 22, 2003, agency update. Three of the options would have provided a 'global fix' to the problem, but high costs were cited as liabilities to pursuing them."

Plaintiffs are represented by W. Gordon Ball with Ball & Scott of Knoxville, Bruce Fox with Fox & Farley of Clinton, Tenn., and Michael Hausfeld of Washington, D.C.

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