Communities to Coal Plants: Clean Up Your Mess Before You Go!
Distrust in the TVA runs deep in eastern Tennessee, and as the utility shutters two power plants—Bull Run and Kingston—local activists fear it will close up shop without safely containing its leaky pits of toxic sludge and ash.
In the early 1960s, when James Jenkins was about 11, two lawyers knocked on the wooden frame of his family’s screened-in porch. The house, a former hog pen that slowly grew into a three-bedroom home, looked out over the green hills of eastern Tennessee. The boy’s parents did the decent thing: invited the men into their kitchen and pulled out a couple chairs for them around a long yellow table. His father poured coffee, and the lawyers made their pitch: They wanted to buy a portion of the family farm for a new coal-fired power plant.
“I can still remember the two suits and ties because we didn’t see too many suits and ties,” says Jenkins, who is now a 74-year-old cattle farmer. The men had come to his home in Claxton, Anderson County, on behalf of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). The TVA is a federally owned utility founded on the heels of the Great Depression to assist this rural region of central Appalachia, which suffered from frequent flooding and, until then, a lack of federal investment.
The Tennessee Valley Authority Act of 1933 provided flood control through a network of dams and electricity generation through hydropower and coal. It also generated well-paying jobs, which created a comfortable middle class and sustained a legacy of regional pride in the TVA. But for many, like the Jenkins family, the act marked the start of a corporate takeover. As Jenkins describes it, his family felt pressured to take the deal that the TVA was offering and ended up selling their home, along with two acres of their farm. Soon after, the TVA built a railroad spur over the land to carry coal into the Bull Run Fossil Plant.
While some older residents tell similar regretful stories of land acquisition, Tennesseans have generally become accustomed to the TVA’s invisible hand. That is, until a decade ago, when an industrial disaster reminded communities of the dangers they face from the poorly regulated fossil fuel industry. In 2008, millions of tons of coal ash burst from the TVA’s Kingston Fossil Plant in Roane County, next door to Anderson County, swamping more than 300 acres and contaminating dozens of homes and two nearby rivers with arsenic, lead, mercury, and radium.
Since the TVA opened its first coal-fired power plant in 1942, its electric lines have connected communities across seven southern states, but so has its air and water pollution. Trust in the TVA has been leaching out of the region for years, and now residents-turned-activists from Anderson and Roane counties have come together to demand that the utility deal with its coal ash messes in a manner that’s equitable and safe.
“You can only clean up a pig so clean—and you still get dirty,” Jenkins cautions. Back in his carpenter days, the TVA would hire him every decade or so to clean the Bull Run plant during a shutdown. Jenkins mainly serviced the plant’s scaffolding but said anything within the building was dirty work, and at the end of a day there, he’d come home in black clothing. “You’d go in and try to wash down stuff, but it still had coal ash all over it.”
The materials left behind after coal is burned, called coal ash, contain a laundry list of toxic materials. Short-term exposure can lead to shortness of breath, dizziness, and vomiting, while prolonged exposure to coal ash has the potential to damage every major organ system in the body and has been linked to birth defects, neurological disorders, and a variety of cancers.
Despite scientific evidence pointing to the dangers of coal ash and the fact that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulates many of the substances within it, the federal government does not categorize coal ash as a hazardous waste. The absence of strong safeguards has enabled coal companies to proceed with dodgy practices, including storing a sludgy mixture of coal ash and water on-site in unlined pits called ash ponds. Back in 2015, the EPA set standards and deadlines for coal ash pond monitoring, but it didn’t go far enough to protect public health. A federal court ruled in 2018 that these ponds should be retrofitted and lined in order to prevent the contamination of groundwater, but utilities, including the TVA, haven’t been taking those precautions. Last September, the agency under President Trump made the rules even weaker.
Around 95 percent of all coal ash pits are unlined and, according to groundwater monitoring data presented in a report from Earthjustice that was updated in 2020, 91 percent of ash ponds being monitored are leaking hazardous substances at levels exceeding federal safety standards.
This is what’s happening at Bull Run, but its days of power generation are numbered.
Demand for coal-fired electricity has been petering out. Between 2007 and 2018, coal went from being the source for more than half of the TVA’s power generation to a little more than a quarter of it, and it’s currently the source of just 19 percent. Over the last decade, the utility has closed more than half of its coal-fired power units while transitioning to cheaper sources of energy, such as natural gas.
In February 2019, the TVA’s board of trustees voted to shutter Bull Run by 2023. By the time of the announcement, Bull Run had already been operating at less than a third of its capacity for several years. Even so, it was producing 1,500 tons of coal ash each day. (This June, the TVA announced its plan to also close the Kingston plant within the next five years.)
Bull Run lies at the far western edge of Anderson County, in a pocket between two ridgelines, with Claxton households, like James Jenkins’s property, lining its boundaries. Across this karst terrain of permeable limestone, the plant stores more than five million tons of coal ash, spread across 40 acres in various unlined pits. The landfill abuts two waterways, Bull Run Creek and the Clinch River. Along the river and within two miles of the plant are the intakes for two drinking water utilities—West Knox and Hallsdale-Powell—which serve 130,000 Tennesseans.
According to a 2019 report by the Environmental Integrity Project, at least six of the TVA’s coal ash impoundments in Bull Run and Kingston are leaching toxic materials like arsenic and lithium into the groundwater. While the utility has denied that its leaky ponds are contaminating drinking water, Anderson County residents aren’t convinced and want their water sources protected—now and after the plant closes.
One concern: The TVA doesn’t plan to remove Bull Run’s coal ash. Instead, the utility says it will drain water from the 40-acre pit and stick two liners and a wastewater treatment basin on top.
“Capping in place [may] prevent future coal ash from entering into the system, but it doesn’t resolve the existing problem of water contamination,” says Avner Vengosh, professor of earth and ocean sciences at Duke University, who has been studying the impacts of coal ash on communities for more than a decade.
Further angering residents, the TVA was planning to build another 60-acre landfill half a mile up the road that would have been bookended by two low-income communities: Greenview Village, an affordable housing project, and Ben’s Mobile Home Park, a working-class community consisting of about 100 trailers.
“They’re not going to put it in Martha’s Vineyard or the Sequoyah Hills,” says local activist Janie Clark, referring to an affluent suburb of eastern Tennessee. “They’re going to put it where people have the least recourse and just aren’t aware. It’s people that are busy trying to eke out an income who aren’t paying attention. But next thing you know, there’s a big coal ash dump in the backyard.”
After community members swarmed meetings held by the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC) to speak out against the plan, TDEC put the new landfill project on hold in the spring of 2020. A few months later, the TVA withdrew its permit applications for the landfill. But the existing landfill and its toxic contents remain. In three groundwater test wells at Bull Run, TDEC detected levels of arsenic, cobalt, lithium, and molybdenum that exceeded EPA standards for safe drinking water; at least one pond is submerged in an average of 18 feet of groundwater.
The West Knox and Hallsdale-Powell utilities tested their drinking water in 2019 and found they were clear of these substances, with the exception of arsenic at Hallsdale-Powell. However, unless utilities are regularly monitoring a comprehensive list of coal ash components, says Vengosh, it’s hard to ensure that the drinking water is safe, and worryingly, inorganic chemicals aren’t typically smelled or tasted by consumers.
That same year, a discovery of high levels of arsenic in the groundwater at the TVA’s Gallatin coal-fired plants near Nashville and its Allen Fossil Plant outside of Memphis heightened suspicions in the Bull Run community. The Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) and the state of Tennessee sued the TVA over Gallatin—a case the TVA settled, agreeing to dig up 12 million tons of coal ash. In a 2019 statement, SELC senior attorney Amanda Garcia urged the utility to use the closure of Bull Run to “tackle the toxic legacy of storing coal ash in unlined pits…that have leaked into nearby waters for decades.”
Disaster on Top of Disaster
Julie Bledsoe and Janie Clark had never given much thought to environmental advocacy. The two women, one of whom is now a grandmother, had spent most of their lives and energy caring for their families. Those activities, however, merged shortly after their husbands became first responders in the Kingston disaster.
When coal ash ponds lack heavy-duty liners and adequate oversight, the pressure of millions of tons of wet coal ash can cause the enclosures to burst—as one did a few days before Christmas in 2008. The breach sent 7.3 million tons of toxic gray sludge gushing across hundreds of acres, destroying homes, clogging riverways, and becoming one of the largest terrestrial environmental disasters in U.S. history.
The federal government, however, remained largely hands-off in the cleanup effort. Three weeks after the spill, the EPA handed over the reins to the TVA, which then immediately hired Jacobs, a global firm with a history of worker safety violations, for the job.
Jacobs employed roughly 900 workers in its cleanup crews, among them Ron Bledsoe and Ansol Clark. The two men arrived early at the site on the morning of the incident and spent the following three years driving fuel trucks and hauling water to wet the ash in order to keep it from blowing away.
Jacobs not only failed to tell workers about the toxicity of coal ash and monitor their health, but it also denied them the use of personal protective equipment, including respirators and Tyvek suits. In a civil lawsuit against the company, workers testified that Tom Bock, Jacobs’s safety manager, went as far as ordering dust masks to be destroyed after employees began to complain of nosebleeds and other respiratory problems. According to an ongoing investigation by USA Today–Knox News, at least 53 Kingston first responders and cleanup workers so far have died from, and more than 400 are sick with, conditions linked to coal ash exposure.
Within a year of working at the site, both Ron and Ansol began developing cold-like symptoms, including sinus infections and trouble breathing. Ron was eventually diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), a condition marked by thickened and inflamed airways in the lungs. By 2012, Ansol had suffered two strokes and developed polycythemia vera, a rare and often fatal blood cancer that caused his body to overproduce red blood cells.
A month before the Kingston spill, the TVA unveiled its new scrubber system at the base of a new, 500-foot smokestack at Bull Run. The equipment had the potential to cut the plant’s sulfur dioxide emissions by 95 percent and help reduce the smoggy haze and acid rain that could reach as far as Great Smoky Mountains National Park. At the time, plant manager Ric Wiggall told the Oakridger that residents would be able to visibly see a difference.
“It’s going to improve the air quality,” Wiggall told the newspaper.
But Ansol had already been working in the unscrubbed air and ash for six years at the Bull Run plant. In fact, after his first four months working there, Ansol became very ill in January 2003 and was unable to leave his bed for weeks. He couldn’t return to work until March, when he was reassigned to Kingston. Janie now believes Ansol had come down with a bad case of what she and other workers call the “fly ash flu.”
Three years ago, Ansol, often considered a guiding light for the coal ash workers, built a memorial: a white, eight-foot-tall cross overlooking the spill site. But by spring 2020, his cancer treatments had left him too weak to walk the 100 feet from the car to the cross, where Janie laid buttercups on Easter Sunday. The couple was able to scrape together various forms of health insurance and, in that way, says they have been lucky. Many of the Kingston coal ash workers don’t have insurance or are underinsured. “There’s no medical help or treatment [from the TVA] for workers,” Janie says. “They’re just on their own.” (In December, some help came when a retired TVA manager named John Stewart, in collaboration with the East Tennessee Fund and the University of Tennessee Medical Center, started a Kingston workers’ medical fund. When Stewart asked the TVA to donate, it refused.)
On a weekend in late April 2020, Ansol traveled through the pouring rain to Knoxville for Workers’ Memorial Day. As he walked into the indoor vigil with a cane and wearing a face mask, Ansol was surrounded by photographs of the deceased, including workers from Kingston. Less than a week later, Ansol joined them, succumbing to his illness at the age of 70.
Later, when Janie found her husband’s Bull Run hard hat in the garage, her knees buckled.
“I believe wholeheartedly he died because of overexposure to all those emissions that began at Bull Run,” she said. He worked at Kingston for 10 years, until he became too sick to hold a job. In his first year as a first responder, Ansol’s pay stubs show that he worked more than 3,400 hours at the coal ash disaster site—significantly more than the average full-time worker, who accumulates roughly 2,080 annual hours—and without any respiratory protection.
Janie feels the cleanup workers were treated like “common trash.” “That’s a sad word to say, but that’s just the way I see it,” she said over the phone last year. “So when Julie and I found out what TVA had planned for people in Anderson County, we began to listen.”
In the summer of 2019, the two women drove up to the Anderson County courthouse to attend a TDEC meeting. Chuck Head, the former assistant commissioner for TDEC’s environmental bureau, assured attendees that the TVA would study Bull Run’s coal ash pond prior to the plant’s closure. But Julie, like many folks in Anderson and Roane counties, felt the department wasn’t doing enough to protect residents.
Crowds filled the seats, so Julie leaned against the back wall. For more than half an hour, she listened to Head “talking over everyone,” speaking in complex jargon about coal ash. Increasingly frustrated, she decided to speak up.
“I know you’ve studied the water and studied the fish,” Julie recalls saying, “but I want to know about human studies. What has coal ash done to humans living and breathing and working in it? What are you doing about human health?”
She is still waiting for a satisfactory answer.
Last summer, the TVA cancelled an open house due to the COVID-19 pandemic, replacing the meeting with a Sims-like virtual tour of a hotel lobby decked out with mini presentations on Bull Run’s future. The setup allowed for written comment but no further public participation. This didn’t sit well with the activists, so in August, an Anderson County group called Bull Run Neighbors organized its own meeting over Zoom.
More than 50 Tennesseans, including TDEC staff and researchers from Oak Ridge National Laboratory, attended. Julie discussed the TVA’s disregard for other contaminated communities—Memphis, Gallatin, and hers in Kingston—and compared Big Coal to the tobacco and pharmaceutical industries that spent decades denying products like cigarettes and opioids cause cancer and addiction. She also called out TDEC for its failure to regulate coal ash.
“We’re more than willing to try and answer questions that people may have,” Head told the crowd, adding that because TDEC was awaiting the results from the TVA investigations, “I can’t say what exactly will happen at the site in terms of cleanup.”
This ticked off Julie, whose brother-in-law, Doug Bledsoe, another Kingston coal ash cleanup worker, had died just two weeks before from brain cancer. She saw history repeating itself through the meetings of 2019 and 2020. “I see future testing [by TDEC and TVA] as a delay tactic,” she told Head.
Although Julie and Janie don’t live directly next to coal ash, their activism has galvanized other residents. Loni Arwood lives across the street from Bull Run. “I can lie in bed at night and watch the lights from the steam plant flash,” she said near the end of the call. “I’ve seen the stuff flying through the air.” Sitting at her kitchen table, Arwood called the proposal of putting a cap on the landfill without disposing of the coal ash that was leaking from the site “a load of crock.” While her Zoom connection flickered in and out, Arwood’s mom peered in from the right side of the screen with an ominous greeting and said, “Welcome to Cancerville.”
Life with Coal Ash
Sharon Todd, another member of the Bull Run Neighbors, has lived nearly all of her 67 years in Claxton, with the exception of three spent out of state due to her husband’s military job. In 1979, the TVA built a series of enormous power lines across Todd’s 50-acre property. She was told that if she opposed, the TVA would just condemn the acreage it wanted.
“They’ve done a lot of good, they’ve stopped flooding here,” Todd says, pushing long brown hair behind her ears. “But everybody has paid in some way.”
Todd remembers acid rain corroding the paint off cars and houses across the street from the plant. Before updating the plant with a scrubber system, the TVA attempted to placate residents by installing a car wash, though its pollution continued to turn white roofs black and lower property values. Todd recalls wondering, “If that’s what coal pollution is doing to cars and houses, what’s it doing to our bodies?”
Beyond Bull Run’s easternmost ash pond is the Claxton Community Park, where children from working-class families frequent the Kid’s Palace playground. The TVA paid for a ball field next door and laid the turf for a soccer field near its Kingston plant. But activists like Todd say they would never allow kids under their care to use these facilities. A study published in June examined fingernail samples from 263 children living near Kentucky coal ash storage facilities and found elevated concentrations of metals from fly ash exposure, including neurotoxins like chromium, manganese, and zinc.
During dry weather, very fine remnants of coal ash, called fly ash, whip into clouds and settle onto Claxton. On a particularly windy day, Todd and other residents say you can wipe a white glove down the playground’s slide, and the fabric will turn black.
“It’s beyond bizarre,” says Todd. She’s tried to put up flyers about the dangers of coal ash on information boards near the park, but the tape wouldn’t stick, which she says is likely due to the film of ash on everything. “It’s like the theater of the absurd,” she says. “You can’t make it up.”
Not too far from the park is the home of Cruze and Amber Tucker. They live less than half a mile from the Bull Run plant with their two children, Thomas and Avril. Airborne coal ash regularly drifts over the Tucker property, but the children’s exposure to the toxic material began inside their home and before they were even born. Their grandfather, Jason Williams, worked with the Teamsters union as a cleanup worker at the Kingston disaster and later as a fly ash subcontractor for Bull Run. Williams spent a lot of time with Amber while she was pregnant, unaware of the health threat posed by the ash he brought home for years on his clothes, boots, and body.
The whole family suffers from conditions linked to coal ash, and Williams, who has skin cancer, left Bull Run in May 2019 on account of his health. But the exposure has most severely affected the Tuckers’ two children, who both suffer from chronic lung, skin, and neurological problems. Thomas also has a heart condition. By the time he turned two years old, he had undergone seven surgeries.
The children’s doctors expect their health conditions to be lifelong, and the Tuckers filed a $30 million lawsuit against the TVA. The suit stated that the utility has not been forthcoming about the dangers of coal ash, which it sells to various industries for reuse, drawing an “immense profit without general public knowledge” and preying upon low-income communities who cannot afford to go up against its “billion-dollar PR marketing and lobbying power.”
The Tuckers’ lawyer, Jim Scott, who also represents the Kingston workers, says the TVA has grown so large since the mid-20th century that, “it is essentially allowed to regulate itself without transparency or accountability to the ratepayer.” (While the lawsuit was dismissed without prejudice, Scott says he plans to refile in federal court by early August.)
Appealing to independent researchers has become a last resort for the people of Anderson and Roane county to find answers.
In 2015, after the Kingston cleanup was completed, TDEC ordered the TVA to investigate its storage of coal ash in the state, including the location of storage sites, the amount they held, and their condition. The TDEC and EPA, however, have allowed TVA to keep those investigations internal.
“The real problem is science has never played a major role in decision-making,” says Vengosh. “In order for [TVA] to get trust, they need to go to a third party that does not depend on them for its funding to evaluate the water quality and do independent tests.”
Last summer, Anderson County leaders, led by commissioner Catherine Denenberg, pushed TDEC to finally approve independent testing. Under COVID-19 restrictions, two doctoral students from Vengosh’s lab traveled down to Tennessee to collect coal ash samples, which, after close analysis, confirmed that coal ash waste exists at a playground near TVA’s Bull Run plant as well as on other areas downwind of it.
Meanwhile, the community is still awaiting the results from tests that the TDEC ordered the TVA to conduct six years ago. Earlier this year, TVA’s vice president of civil projects, Scott Turnbow, e-mailed Denenberg, saying that the studies would be publicly available once completed and would “inform future decisions that are made about the long-term storage of coal ash from Bull Run.”
She wasn’t satisfied. Denenberg, who was elected to her post in 2018, chairs the Intergovernmental Committee that’s tasked with monitoring Bull Run’s closing process. In order to plan for how the site could be redeveloped in the future, the committee needs to know whether the area is safe or not.
Last week, those results finally came in. Three TDEC representatives announced at the Anderson County Courthouse that 11 coal ash components exceeded allowable levels in groundwater, surface water, and sediments, and those included arsenic, barium, beryllium, cobalt, copper, lead, lithium, mercury, molybdenum, nickel, and selenium.
Tracy Wandell, a county commissioner from Claxton, was steamed. Sitting next to Denenberg, he says he was once impressed with TDEC’s initial testing order and assurances that his constituents would be safe from pollution. But now it’s been so many years later, with only preliminary data available, no official timelines, and no formal fines for any of the TVA’s exceedances that have been so far exposed.
“I was for keeping the coal ash in place, but when I see it now, I’m not for it. In fact, I’m a little bit upset that it continues to sit there, and our people continue to live in it,” says Wandell. “What’s worse is TDEC knows it. I expect in the year 2035 we might have some resolution to this little project, but the only thing that happens in the meantime is TDEC keeps doing tests, TVA keeps kicking the ball down the field, and nothing happens.” Denenberg calls it “TVA’s version of the Tennessee Waltz.”
The TVA is obligated to post the exceedances to its federal website, according to Pat Flood, a senior advisor at TDEC, but he notes that it’s not TDEC’s responsibility to notify the public about contamination in its waterways—even when arsenic and copper are flowing downstream of Bull Run into the Clinch River, where people boat, fish, and swim. When asked which state agency would be responsible for notifying the public, Flood could not answer.
Now Denenberg is hoping the Biden administration will not only reverse Trump’s weakening of coal ash standards but strengthen them. In April, Biden nominated four new board members with backgrounds in clean energy, environmental justice, and labor; the nominees now await Senate approval after receiving a strong letter of support from climate groups like 350.org, NRDC, and Union of Concerned Scientists.
“I think [new board members] could make an enormous difference in how TVA is structured and how it answers to the public,” Denenberg said. “I’m pretty sure there are names submitted that will be far more agreeable to what is needed for TVA to clean up, and make right, what they have done.”
Todd, for her part, would like to see the Bull Run site, once safe, repurposed for an expanded school or affordable housing. The mere act of cleaning it up could provide an economic stimulus for the community, as long as it’s done with proper worker protections.
Jenkins still lives next to Bull Run on his family’s remaining land. He’s raised seven children along the TVA’s railroad spur, with the plant’s smokestack piercing the view of the sky just beyond his property.
Jenkins worries about the health impacts of living so close to Bull Run and for good reason. His older sister, Johnny Catherine Freeman, who could see the plant from her back window, died of breast cancer five years ago. The year before, Jenkins himself was diagnosed with bladder cancer. He says five other neighbors in his Riverview neighborhood also have bladder cancer.
“Just tell us the truth,” says Jenkins. He wants the TVA to be transparent with the surrounding community about air emissions and coal ash contamination. “If you’re going to shove it [coal ash] down our throats, just tell us the truth, and that way, we can go on.”
There are only two people Jenkins knows who never signed a contract to sell their property to TVA. One is a neighbor, and the other was his own grandfather, George Fletcher Jenkins, who founded the baptist church in Claxton.
“But if you didn’t sign, they put the check in the bank and did it anyway,” he says. Jenkins recalls hovering in the kitchen that afternoon so long ago when TVA’s lawyers told his parents: “You can’t stand in front of progress.”
The TVA eventually took Grandfather Jenkins’s land through eminent domain. The majority of his corn and cattle farm is now buried under half a century of coal ash.
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