The 2008 TVA Kingston Fossil Plant coal ash spill in Roane County, Tenn., was the largest in American history. It spilled more than 5.4 million cubic yards of coal ash mixed with 327 million gallons of water. It caused the evacuation of 22 residents and led to the condemnation of three homes.

Submitted photo

The value of Steve Scarborough’s lakefront lots plummeted after the Tennessee Valley Authority Fossil Plant coal ash disaster in 2008.

The two lots were on the market at around $100,000 each before the incident. But in the wake of the colossal coal ash spill, bottom-feeding land-grabbers offered him $5,000 for each lot, Scarborough said during a telephone interview Monday with the Danville Register & Bee.

Around 1 a.m. on Dec. 22, 2008, the retention wall of a coal ash-holding pond failed at the TVA Kingston Fossil Plant in Roane County, Tenn., according to a report from the Tennessee Department of Health.

More than 5.4 million cubic yards of coal ash — mixed with 327 million gallons of water — spilled into a branch of the Emory River, two inlets, and the river’s main channel, according to the public health assessment released on Sept. 7, 2010. It sent coal ash six and a half miles upstream and about 15 miles downstream of the plant, Scarborough said.

The Emory River flows into Watts Bar Lake, where Scarborough’s lakefront lots are located.

“This thing was massive and it went upstream,” recalled Scarborough, who lives about 20 miles from the spill site.

“Everybody was affected,” he added. “A lot of it went into the air, as well. It was like a cloud that stunk for weeks. For several days, I couldn’t get to my own property to check it out.”

The coal-ash slide forced the evacuation of 22 residents, disrupted power, ruptured a gas line, impaired water quality in the Emory River and destroyed habitat. It also damaged three homes, which had to be condemned, according to the report.

A lot of the area was destroyed, replaced with parks and a few docks.

Everyone was affected — retirees along the lake, farmers and those in low-income areas with smaller homes, Scarborough said.

“The disruption in the area was incredible,” he said. “Everybody who could just moved away, most of them out of the county.”

The stigma and financial toll from the disaster are still felt in Roane County, Tenn. Whenever Scarborough tells people where he lives, they mention the coal ash spill. “It’s just a pall on the community,” Scarborough said. “They think we’re still in the middle of a disaster.”

Property values continue to languish. Roane County and the next one down have not seen them return to pre-disaster levels.

Houses in beautiful subdivisions used to sell for up to $750,000.

Prior to the Dec. 22, 2008, incident, one out of four waterfront homes in the TVA’s greater Knoxville area was built in Roane County. Now, just one out of 12 real-estate transactions take place there, and properties sell at about 30 percent less than their valuation more than five years ago, Scarborough said.

TVA officials just blame it on the recession, he said. But it’s obviously due to the coal ash spill.

Ninth generation

Sarah McCoin lives about two miles upstream of the Fossil Plant site in Swan Pond, Tenn. Her family has a trust that owns about 40 acres of riverfront property.

She returned to her native soil along the Emory River — she’s ninth generation — from St. Louis in the summer of 2008.

“There was no other incident like it,” McCoin recalled Monday during a telephone interview.

The TVA downplayed and minimized the disaster, calling it a mudslide, McCoin said.

Roads were blocked by police after the spill and McCoin had no way to get to friends’ homes.

“At times, I couldn’t get home because my road was blocked off,” she said. “It was a nightmare for years.”

A friend’s home was knocked off its foundations while he was in it, McCoin recalled.

TVA security told reporters and others to leave, even if they were standing at the side of the road on public property, McCoin said.

The area became like a police state, she said.

“There were areas where you had to show a badge to get home,” McCoin said.

By April 2009, the coal ash still hadn’t been cleared and the rains began. After one deluge, roads, railroads were still covered in ash. “They didn’t clean it up and they downplayed it.”

The TVA told the residents it would take six weeks to clean up, she said. But it has stretched out to more than five years and about $1.2 billion later.

McCoin has advice for residents of the Dan River Region affected by the coal ash spill that took place on Feb. 2 at an old Duke Energy power plant in Eden, N.C., which dumped 82,000 tons of coal ash and 27 million gallons of contaminated water into the Dan River.

McCoin urges residents in the region to unite and reach out to environmental organizations like Earthjustice and to watch out for attorneys with no expertise in environmental issues trying to profit from the incident.

“It’s going to be like Avon salespeople knocking on your doors,” she said.

If residents sue, they need to make sure they’re well-represented, McCoin said.

“Representation is the only piece of mind residents can hope for at this time as the coal industry is a giant to be reckoned with, despite every effort by Earthjustice, Southern Alliance and other entities who know the harm of coal ash,” McCoin said.

Also, watch out for Duke Energy officials who may try to downplay the disaster, and for glib politicians, she said.

“They don’t know any more than you do,” McCoin said. “They’ll try to capitalize on it. Don’t get sold out by your local politicians.”

Residents “just need to be really careful. Don’t sign anything. Sign nothing. Don’t let them scare you.”

Crane reports for the Danville Register & Bee.

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