Anderson County residents keep the heat on TVA over worries about toxic coal ash

Anderson County resident Loni Arwood says she doesn’t need a study to convince her the Tennessee Valley Authority is contaminating her community with its radioactive coal ash dust.

“I’ve seen the stuff flying through the air at the (Kid’s Palace playground) … where the children play ball,” she said, referring to a children’s recreational area located less than 100 yards from a coal ash dump at TVA’s Bull Run Fossil Plant in Claxton. “Why hasn’t that been shut down? Can anyone tell me that?”

Arwood isn’t alone in her complaints about TVA’s handling of the millions of tons of toxic coal ash waste it produces and stores at the Bull Run plant — located next to Kid’s Palace and less than a mile from the Claxton Elementary School — and the utility’s current plan to leave all that waste behind when it shutters the plant in 2023.

More than 50 residents, including several Oak Ridge scientists and researchers, turned out earlier this month for a virtual community meeting to voice concerns about TVA’s coal ash waste in Anderson County.

“Coal ash is the largest unregulated radioactive waste in the United States,” Oak Ridge resident and scientific researcher Bob Hatcher told attendees at the virtual Bull Run Neighbors community group meeting. “This is a toxic material without any question. There are radiological elements in it, despite the denials of TVA.”

TVA has claimed for decades its coal ash — the byproduct of burning coal to produce electricity — was mostly “inert” dust, no more dangerous to breathe than dirt and no more radioactive than low-sodium table salt.

Although TVA no longer compares its coal ash waste to dirt in public statements, the utility says the substance is not classified as a hazardous waste under Environmental Protection Agency rules.

TVA has repeatedly said its coal ash waste has been tested by the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation and other agencies, all of whom have concluded it is not a radiological threat.

But an ongoing Knox News investigation revealed TVA has known for decades its coal ash waste contained radium — a radioactive heavy metal dangerous to breathe or ingest — and a slew of other cancer-causing toxins, including arsenic, cadmium and strontium.

Knox News commissioned a test earlier this year by Duke University of TVA coal ash waste produced at its Kingston Fossil Plant, the site in 2008 of the nation’s largest coal ash spill.

Knox News probe: Regulators deleted and altered radiological test results on coal ash from Kingston spill

The results showed TVA’s Kingston coal ash waste contains dangerous radioactive heavy metals at levels as much as three times higher than those claimed by the utility and its state regulator, the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation.

Knox News’ reporting led to the formation of the Bull Run Neighbors group and a push by some Anderson County leaders for independent testing of property surrounding the plant for evidence of coal ash waste contamination.

Contamination worries continue

The Bull Run Neighbors meeting was organized in protest of TVA’s decision in July to cancel a forum scheduled for that month on the Bull Run plant closure. The forum would have allowed residents to speak and ask questions. TVA, citing COVID-19 concerns, instead hosted a virtual “open house” with slides showing various proposals for redeveloping the Bull Run plant property.

“They have made it look like it’s going to be so easy-peasy to cover this up and put in biking trails and letting our kids swim in the water but you might as well say, ‘Welcome to Cancerville,’” Arwood said of TVA’s virtual presentation. “I think it’s a load of crap.”

TVA is again citing COVID-19 worries for cancelling an in-person “listening” session Thursday at its board of directors meeting that also would have allowed residents an opportunity to speak.

Got a comment? Here’s a link with more information on TVA’s upcoming board meeting

TVA spokesman Scott Brooks said the utility is still deciding what to do with its coal ash dumps at Bull Run and is listening to community concerns.

“There are many steps involved in the closure and post-closure process of our Bull Run Fossil Plant and we are still in the early stages,” Brooks said in a statement. “The most important thing to know is that we care about this community and we will continue to be a good neighbor long after the plant closes.”

For nearly a year now, Anderson County residents have been pushing TDEC — the state agency tasked with policing coal ash waste — and local leaders to better protect the Claxton community from coal ash contamination.

TVA’s own reports show its coal ash dumps at the Bull Run plant are leaking coal ash contaminants into groundwater test wells. Knox News has repeatedly captured photographic evidence of coal ash dust, which contains tiny particles of radioactive material that embed in the lungs when inhaled, blowing onto the Kid’s Palace playground.

TDEC has not conducted any studies to determine if TVA’s coal ash waste is contaminating properties surrounding the Bull Run plant. The agency is allowing TVA to investigate itself and will use the utility’s findings to determine if the Bull Run plant property is contaminated and, if so, what should be done about it.

“Depending on what the results of that report are, we will ask TVA to take appropriate steps on what should happen at the site,” TDEC Assistant Commissioner Chuck Head told attendees at the Bull Run Neighbors meeting. “At this time, we haven’t gotten all the results of that investigation in.”

Ongoing investigation: Kingston coal ash spill workers treated as ‘expendables,’ lawsuit by sick and dying contends

Anderson County Commissioner Catherine Denenberg proposed an independent study earlier this year by Duke University, which handled testing of the Kingston ash for Knox News, and sought $1,500 in funding to cover travel expenses for two Duke researchers.

Anderson County Mayor Terry Frank and Commissioner Denver Waddell pushed back against the request at a July meeting, with both insisting Anderson County leaders should put their trust in TDEC. Frank insisted a contract be drawn up and approved by the commission first.

Denenberg told attendees at the Bull Run Neighbors meeting that Duke University opted to forego any funding from Anderson County Commission and has already conducted sampling to determine if TVA’s coal ash waste is migrating onto private property around the plant.

“I don’t know when we will see a report, but I will keep you updated,” Denenberg said.

Email Jamie Satterfield at and follow her on Twitter @jamiescoop. If you enjoy Jamie’s coverage, support strong local journalism by subscribing for full access to all our content on every platform.


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