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Tenn. ash spill creates concern for area churches

Members of Swan Pond United Methodist Church in Harriman, Tenn., look at a massive ash spill from a nearby coal-burning plant.
UMNS photos by Annette Spence.

By Annette Spence*
Jan. 12, 2009 | HARRIMAN, Tenn. (UMNS)

When members of Swan Pond United Methodist Church were allowed back into their church, the first thing they did was walk over to the cemetery to look at the damage. An environmental catastrophe lurked at the bottom of the hill.

Rivers of toxic gray sludge covered up roads and trees. Dump trucks rumbled by, loaded with ash, leaving muddy trails. A church member pointed out where the landscape had been permanently altered by the accident that shook area residents out of their beds on Dec. 22.

“I woke up about 1:15 a.m. when I heard the sirens – big firetrucks – going by,” said Charles McSween, who has lived on Swan Pond Circle since 1955.

Swan Pond is one of four United Methodist churches located within a few miles of the billion-gallon spill that came from the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Kingston plant, a coal-burning facility in Roane County. The 300-acre disaster was the topic of a U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing Jan. 8. It has been reported that the spill covers an area several times larger than that of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill.

“It’s heartbreaking. It’s tearing us all to pieces,” said Brenda Hendrickson, who has attended the Swan Pond church for the last 10 of her 47 years in Harriman, Tenn. “The workers, the equipment, the trucks – it’s the only way it can be cleaned up, but it’s disrupting our lives.”

Dump trucks loaded with ash rumble by Swan Pond Church on a foggy
Sunday morning.   

Swan Pond United Methodist Church overlooks the area where three homes were destroyed and the Emory River was clogged with the contents of a retention pond that burst. Harriman United Methodist Church and Midtown Valley United Methodist Church have hosted heated community meetings—including one attended by environmental legalist Erin Brockovich, who was the subject of a movie in 2000.

All three churches, as well as Kingston United Methodist Church, have members who might be affected by health hazards or declining property values. Many are current or former TVA employees. All of the churches are in The United Methodist Church’s Holston Annual Conference, which includes congregations in east Tennessee, southwest Virginia and north Georgia.

Tied together

“We are mutually tied together in this mess, and we are tied together in how we work through it,” said the Rev. Katye Fox, pastor of Harriman United Methodist Church and Midtown Valley United Methodist Church.

Since Christmas, the Oak Ridge District pastor has checked regularly on parishioners living near the spill site while opening her churches to the city council, landowners, lawyers and media. The churches were asked to host meetings because the buildings are spacious and convenient and because prominent citizens are members, Fox said.

“I’m thrilled that they’re meeting in the church. Thank God this is happening in the church and not in some neutral territory, so that we can go forward together,” Fox said.

Reactions to the disaster vary. Some residents express anger toward lawyers pursuing litigation against TVA on behalf of landowners, while others were pleased to meet with Brockovich and her team in a closed meeting at Midtown Valley United Methodist Church on Jan. 8. As of Jan. 9, at least two lawsuits—seeking at least $5 million each and a state complaint asking $165 million in damages, according to the Chattannogan.com—had been filed against TVA, claiming the dike that retained the toxic waste was faulty. More are expected.

Some residents showed anger toward TVA officials during a Jan. 6 town hall meeting at the Harriman United Methodist Church, while others said they trust the agency.

“I understand the frustrations, but give TVA a chance,” said Mike Hill, a member at Swan Pond United Methodist Church. Like McSween, Hill is retired from TVA after decades of service. He and his father, the Rev. Louis Hill, were invited to a briefing on TVA’s planned disaster response.

“I have confidence in TVA, that they’ll clean this up and that we’ll be safe,” said Hendrickson, a retired bookkeeper in her 60s. “They have promised the people they will take care of it and do the best they can. This fly ash has been with us a long time, anyway. There are people who work around things that are a lot more dangerous.”

Risk of cancer

A byproduct of burning coal for power production, fly ash contains heavy metals such as arsenic, lead, barium and thallium, which have been linked to cancer, liver damage and neurological disorders.

Terry and Sandy Gupton, members of Kingston United Methodist Church, own a cattle farm. Thirty-five of their 250 acres are covered by ash-tainted lake water and debris from the broken dike.

“We can no longer use the beautiful lake in front of our house for fear of what is in it.”
–Monica Ethridge

When the sludge began to push the lake from its bed, the couple had to quickly move their livestock to safe ground and shut off a spring that provides drinking water. Neighbors whose roads were flooded had to drive their vehicles through the Gupton pastures to escape the encroaching waters.

Concerned for their livestock and own personal health, the Guptons plan to sell their property and relocate. Attorneys have filed a lawsuit on their behalf.

“My husband makes his living off this farm,” said Sandy Gupton. “I don’t want to be here, and I don’t want to raise our cattle here.”

Monica Ethridge, a member of Harriman United Methodist Church, has two children, ages 11 and 7. She said she will also sell her house, located less than a half-mile from the spill.

“We can no longer use the beautiful lake in front of our house for fear of what is in it,” she said. “I can’t risk my children’s health, but the loss we have taken can’t be replaced— the long days on the lake, playing in the backyard until dark, and riding bikes along the lakeside that we loved so much.”

Valley of ash

The pastor of Swan Pond Church cancelled worship on the first Sunday after the spill because the roads leading to the church were covered by sludge or barricaded by authorities.

Later, the 15-member congregation was upset to learn that traffic from the clean-up crew and onlookers had left tire ruts in the cemetery lawn.

“Everybody wants to get up on the hill to look at the damage,” explained the Rev. Louis Hill, who has served the 160-year-old church for 22 years.

On the following Sunday, Jan. 4, Swan Pond members asked police to temporarily open a road leading to the back of the church so they could worship. Before the service, members stood on the hill among grave plots, looking over the valley of ashes.

According to the Knoxville News Sentinel, TVA has offered to buy some homes and property. Both McSween and Hendrickson, whose homes are within walking distance of the sludge-filled lake, said they aren’t interested.

“My property value might go down for a while, but it will go back up,” McSween said.

“I don’t want to live anywhere else but here,” Hendrickson said.

Tom Grizzard, a member at Harriman church, owns 200 acres of land, along with his relatives, near the Kingston steam plant. His property was spared from the sludge.

Like many in this community, Grizzard has been interviewed by many media sources. He told the Huffington Post he was not willing to leave the land once owned by his grandfather, although he was concerned his family would deal with fallout for a long time. He told the Roane County News that helicopters overhead and clean-up crews on the ground had disturbed his peace on his acreage, where he and his sons like to fish and hunt.

“My concern right now is all these big old dump trucks,” Grizzard told the Roane County News. “It's hard to get out of our driveway at times. They have no respect for speed limits.”

During the Swan Pond worship service Jan. 4, the ash spill was mentioned only once, when a woman asked for prayers for the community, the clean-up workers and the landowners.

The Midtown Valley and Harriman congregations “definitely do a lot of praying” about the disaster’s effects, Fox said.

“As residents, we will have to pay attention to air and water quality,” she said, “and there are a lot of people who really worried about the wildlife, because they know the animals are continuing to walk through this.”

Many residents have already started drinking bottled water, Fox said, although authorities have said the local water is safe.

“Because I have severe asthma, I will personally have to take precautions for my own health,” the pastor said. “But I’m not going to freak out. I’m not going to panic.”

*Spence is the editor of The Call, the newspaper of the Holston Annual Conference.

News media contact: Linda Green, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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Holston Annual Conference

Tennessee Valley Authority

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