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Arsenic, Other Toxins Found in Water Near Tennessee Fly Ash Spill

Dec 30, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) said that some  tests done in the wake of last week's fly ash spill showed high  amounts of arsenic in water, the Associated Press is reporting.  State and federal officials are urging residents around Kingston, TN to stop drinking water from private wells or springs, the report said.  However, they continue to reassure people that municipal water supplies are safe.

The Tennessee fly ash spill occurred  around 1:00 a.m. last Monday morning after  a wall holding back 80 acres of sludge from the TVA’s Kingston Fossil Plant in central Tennessee broke.  Though the exact cause of the accident was not known, it was thought that six inches of rain over the previous 10 days and overnight temperatures in the teens contributed to the dam breach.

The TVA said that up to 400 acres of land had been coated by the sludge, making it 48 times larger than the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska. The authority now says that  5.4 million cubic yards of potentially toxic fly ash was released from a retention pond. According to the Knoxville News, that’s triple the estimate of  1.7 million cubic yards the TVA released earlier this week.

The fly ash spill damaged  15 homes. All the residents were  evacuated, but at least three homes were deemed uninhabitable.  The spill also clogged the nearby Emory River,  which provides drinking water for millions of people living downstream. In the days after the spill, hundreds of fish were seen floating dead downstream from the plant.

According to a NewsChannel5 report, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) detected high levels of arsenic and heavy metals in the Clinch and Emory rivers near an area where the sludge spill occurred.  TVA spokesman Jim Allen told the Associated Press that there are four private drinking water wells in the area affected by the spill and the agency should have tests from them this week.

As the Associated Press pointed out, arsenic can occur naturally in the environment.  However, excessive exposure to the toxin can cause everything from nausea to paralysis.  And long-term exposure can has been linked to cancer.

The EPA said it didn't detect arsenic in a water intake facility near Kingston, which is about 40 miles west of Knoxville.  So even as they warn residents to avoid wells and springs, officials continue to be confident about the safety of municipal water supplies.

In addition to toxins in the water, many residents in the area of the sludge spill have expressed concerns about air quality.   There is worry that once the fly ash dries, it will become airborne and pose a breathing hazard.  According to the Associated Press, fly ash dust  can contain metals, including arsenic, that irritate the skin and can aggravate pre-existing condition such as asthma

On Sunday, a posting on the TVA website said that air quality testing conducted near the plant found particulate levels far below applicable standards.  However, the EPA is monitoring the air, and on Monday advised people to avoid activities that could stir up dust, such as children or pets playing outside, the Associated Press said.    The report also said the TVA is going to begin installing sprinklers in the area in an attempt to keep the dust moist.

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