From the ashes
Harriman, Tenn., is still recovering from a December 2008 dam break at a Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) coal-fueled power plant in nearby Kingston that released billions of gallons of sludge filled with coal ash waste into area streams and rivers. The spill affected a trio of cities around the plant, and Harriman Mayor Chris Mason says the local governments have grown closer as a result. American City & County talked to Mason about how the city is recovering from the disaster, and what it has learned from the experience.
Q: What is the current status of the sludge cleanup?
A: There are essentially two phases that TVA has categorized the cleanup in. Phase 1 is what they call the critical phase, and that’s the part of the river that has [about 3 million cubic yards of] ash in it. The removing of that ash from the river was the first order of business, and they’ll be finished with that around April. Then, they’ll move on to Phase 2, and that’s just [about 2 million cubic yards of] ash that was released and settled in the embayments and the sluices that were once water. They’re, of course, full of ash now. They’re going to be removing that [ash] and restoring those coves and sluices back to the way they were prior to the spill.
Q: What lessons could other cities learn from Harriman’s situation about recovery from similar disasters?
A: We are unique in the way that our county is laid out. We’ve got three cities that are side by side. We form a triangle. We’ve all got about the same amount of population, we’ve all got about 6,000 [to] 6,500 in each city, and then, of course the county, the makeup of it is about 50,000. But, communication [is important]. If nothing good has come out of this thing in the last year or two or three months, this is the closest that our city and county governments have ever been in, I would dare to say, the history of our county. We’ve always had a bad relationship with each other, and it’s always been a real competitive and a dog-eat-dog type of scenario in our county, and it’s been just the contrary for the past 15 months. The communication has been daily between all the mayors. It’s brought everybody closer together, which is what has been needing to happen for the last 70 or 80 years here. If I could give anybody advice, it would be to don’t judge so quick, be patient and keep the lines of communication open, because you’re not going to solve this problem by yourself. The moral of the story is the lines of communication have to be kept open and everybody’s got to get along.
Q: Are residents concerned about the health effects of the spill?
A: There is some concern about it, but I think the concerns are a whole lot less than they were. People are a little more educated now about what all was in the ash and how it can affect you and what measures [were being taken]. People know a whole lot more about it now than they did [shortly after the spill,] which eases some of the concerns. A lot of things have been done to prevent any type of health problems. [TVA] has monitored the dust control, that was a big fear, it becoming airborne, and, for the most part, they have monitored that and prevented that. The well water still is clear. Oakridge (Tenn.) Associated University is doing a health study right now on anybody who wants to participate, and we have asked the TVA to continue to fund that for the next few years, I’m not sure how many years, it could be 20 years. But, we would like them to do a long-term health study to see if there are any long-term health effects. They don’t think that there are any short-term health effects right now.
Q: Have you seen a lot of residents moving away because of the spill?
A: No, no. There were about 150 homes purchased by TVA in the immediate area [of the spill], and when those homes were purchased, some of those people were displaced and they moved to other counties or to other states. I know of one family that moved out to Colorado, and it wasn’t really to get away from the ash. It was more, it was an opportunity they had to pick up and move and go be with family, so they took advantage of that opportunity. So, it’s more of that. You don’t really have a lot of people who are running away from it. As a matter of fact, the TV show “This Old House” just named a neighborhood in Harriman as the top neighborhood to live in.
We have a marketing campaign that we are just starting that is trying to alleviate any concerns or stress that people may have about what happened. I’ve always said there are two things that happened: the thing that really happened and also the thing that everybody thinks happened, the latter being the worst. The perception that the general public across the country has of what happened here is a whole lot worse than what actually happened. So, we’ve got some marketing to do to overcome that, but TVA has come forward and given the community some economic help to the tune of about $43 million. So, we’re using that money for not only marketing and public PR, but also for pumping most of the money into education and infrastructure.
Q: What is entailed in that marketing plan?
A: That’s still unknown at this time. We have set aside $1 million, which for our county is a lot of money for marketing. It may not seem like a lot of money to some [people,] but $1 million for us to spend on marketing is a lot. We’re going to try to use the social media, the Internet, and then just the old-fashioned stuff [like] billboards. We actually have gotten a bass tournament to come here this summer. I think it’s the top rated bass tournament in the country, [and] they’re going to be holding it here. That type of thing, we have to pay, of course, to get those people to come, so that money will be used for everything traditional and also non-traditional type of advertising.
Q: How would you say the TVA is performing? Are they dealing with this in a satisfactory way?
A: To me, they are. There are still some people around who aren’t satisfied with what they’ve done, but, to me, they have done everything that they have tried to do or said that they’re going to do. I think they could have done a lot of things a lot better. Having said that, if another spill happens somewhere else, I know things will be done a lot better. It was just one of those things that was the first time it’s ever happened, and it was the first time for everybody, and there were a lot of unanswered questions, and everybody learned together. Now, as far as TVA being up front with us, they have been to my knowledge, most of the time.