KNOXVILLE — Independent water quality tests conducted by environmental activists show high levels of arsenic and other toxins in river water near the site of a huge coal ash spill in Tennessee and several miles downstream.
"What we have here is an entire watershed ... that has been contaminated by heavy metals as a result of TVA's ash disaster," Chris Irwin, an attorney for coal industry watchdog United Mountain Defense, said Monday.
"When you have copper and arsenic levels that are so concentrated that they surpass the standard that causes instant death to aquatic life ... that is an event that should signal a major alarm to TVA and the Tennessee authorities," said Jeff Stant with the Washington, D.C.-based Environmental Integrity Project.
The two organizations released results Monday from water sampling they organized at 22 locations Dec. 30-Jan. 4 near the Tennessee Valley Authority's Kingston Fossil Plant after a 1.1 billion gallon spill of ash sludge and water on Dec. 22.
Some 5.4 million cubic yards of ash flooded into river inlets and neighboring homes, covering nearly 300 acres. It may take months to clean up. No one was seriously hurt, but several homes were damaged and Congress is now considering new regulation of such ash ponds, which can be found at 156 coal-fired power plants in 32 states.
"The preliminary data reveal that contaminant levels in these water samples violate both U.S. primary drinking water standards and Tennessee's water quality criteria," the environmental groups said, relying on analysis conducted by two private labs: TestAmerica Laboratories Inc. and Caliber Analytical LLC.
The high levels of contaminants were found only in river water, not in private wells.
However, arsenic levels as high as 48 times the primary drinking water standard were found in river water nearest the spill and two to 20 times the drinking water standard 4½ miles downstream.
The groups said levels of arsenic, lead, selenium, cadmium and copper violated water quality standards and levels of arsenic, lead, beryllium and antimony exceeded primary drinking water standards.
"Not surprisingly, contamination levels were highest near the spill site," the group said.
The results suggest a continuing risk as TVA's $1 million-a-day cleanup continues.
"Leaving the ash sitting on the riverbanks and in the river will endanger public health and the environment. Every time it rains, the ash will continue to leach heavy metals and further contaminate the watershed," Stant said.
TVA spokesman Gil Francis said the environmentalists' test results differ from what TVA, the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have found in their water, soil and air monitoring, though EPA earlier reported a spike in arsenic levels.
"I don't know why they are getting those different readings, but if they would give us the areas where they are taking the samples, we would go back and double-check ours," he said. "Obviously, we want our test to be right."
State and federal regulators maintain that drinking water from private wells and the Kingston and Rockwood water treatment plants meets or surpasses drinking water standards. Officials previously have said routine municipal water filtration processes will remove contaminants such as arsenic.
"Clearly, ash sliding into the Emory River caused violations of water quality standards simply by it being there," TDEC spokeswoman Tisha Calabrese-Benton said. The state is paying particular attention to arsenic, lead, thallium and mercury levels.
"Our sampling has shown that water in close proximity to the spill has contaminants at levels that would not be suitable for drinking," she said. "However, there are no water treatment facilities in this immediate area (and) all of our sampling to date shows municipal water to be safe."