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Ash spill tore apart community

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By Damon Lawrence

Having raised her children in the same house that she grew up in, Kim Harris had a connection to her homeplace that doesn’t show up in a property appraisal.

“When my husband and I first got married, we would buy trees for Christmas and plant them, and I could tell you what year we planted what tree,” she said. “You can’t put prices on that.”

Harris said TVA wasn’t concerned with sentimental value when she and her husband negotiated with the agency to buy their Swan Pond Circle Road home following the ash spill.

“When TVA was dealing with people, it was black and white,” she said. “What did your house appraise for? They did not put a price on the sentimental value.”

Sunday marks five years since the spill, which is one of history’s worst environmental disasters, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

A dike failure at TVA’s Kingston Fossil Plant spilled more than 5 million cubic yards of fly ash over 300 acres. Work crews quickly converged on the area to assess the damage and clean up the mess.

The Harrises didn’t have ash on their property, but living in an environmental cleanup site was unbearable.

“What happened was stressful enough, but to have to go out of your way to get in and out, to have to battle the gravel trucks, the construction, wondering if your kids were going to be run off the road, if you were going to have tree huggers come knocking on your door or spectators in your yard — it was just a constant battle,” Harris said.

The dike failure happened shortly after midnight. Harris said it was around 5:30 that morning when she found out something happened.

“My son was watching the news and he said, ‘Mom, look, there’s TVA in our area on the news,’” she recalled. “‘Something’s really wrong.’”

Harris said Swan Pond United Methodist Church, which sits atop a hill, provided a good view of the devastation in the daytime.

“I remember going up and sitting on the hill and just crying,” she said. “You could see where it filled and engulfed the lake area, the huge trees that it took down and how it took out the roads.”

Despite the connection she had to her home, Harris said she and her family wanted out.

“Right after it happened, my husband and one of my sons had profuse nose bleeds when they would go outside,” she said. “The concentration or combination of what was either in the air or on the ground was not good.”

Harris, who works at Roane State Community College as director of workforce training and job placement, said convincing TVA to buy their property wasn’t easy.

“We battled to get out,” she said.

Harris said they signed papers to sell their house to TVA on May 20, 2009.

They had 90 days to vacate, but couldn’t meet the deadline because they were having a new home built on Lawnville Road.

TVA allowed them to rent their old house until they could move.

“We ended up moving the last week of January in 2010,” she said. “It was a lot of work to pack up our lifelong house of stuff. I had all my toys and my kids’ toys and things, so it was quite emotional to pack it all up.”

TVA purchased more than 180 properties after the spill, but the agency also declined to buy a lot of properties.

“My heart goes out to the people that are out there that wanted to get out, but TVA would not buy out,” Harris said. “There were quite a few around the circle that wanted to get out for health reasons or whatever reasons.”

Harris’ house has been torn down.

“Will I ever go back out there? I don’t know,” she said. “It (the spill) tore a community up.”

Even though she’s signed papers with TVA and moved on, Harris said she still has a personal file on the ash spill that includes newspaper articles and the tissues her husband and son used to stop their nose bleeds.

“I put them in a baggy, dated them and kept them,” she said.

Later, TVA funded Roane County Schools’ $32 million building program as a way to try and make amends for the ash spill.

Harris said she was happy to see that.

“We had representatives of TVA interview us, and basically I told them if you want to try to make the community whole again, you need to invest in the community’s future and the future of the community would be the education,” Harris said, “Otherwise people are going to have increased taxes, so if you want to help, help by doing that because that’s a lasting effect.”