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High-ranking congresswoman hears fly ash concerns

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By The Staff

 By TERRI LIKENS

tlikens@roanecounty.com

Sunday was the kind of day Roane Countians live for -- clear and sunny, with temperatures in the upper 80s.

At the Kingston Community Center, children frolicked in the sparkling blue waters of the public pool, while across  the lawn, boaters could be seen speeding across Watts Bar Lake.

Inside the community center, however, tension was in the air.

Residents gathered to tell a Texas congresswoman how life has changed for them in the five months since a massive fly ash spill at TVA’s Kingston Fossil Plant.

U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson is a ranking member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee that oversees TVA. She also is chairman of its Subcommittee on Water Resources and the Environment.

Johnson explained the rare field visit from a member of congress far from the area.

“We have become very interested in conditions” sparked by the unprecedented environmental disaster, she told the audience. “Since we have never seen anything like this, I thought it would be wise to come down here.”

For anyone closely following the disaster, the complaints were familiar.

Residents spoke of rashes and respiratory problems, or medical conditions that have grown exceedingly worse since the disaster.

They spoke of worries about the dust coming from the area.

And they talked about what they have lost since the Dec. 22 spill.

“Our house has become a prison,” said Gary Topmiller, who lives in the spill area. He said because of fears of breathing contaminants in dust, his family does not spend time outside their home on Günter’s Way.

“I’m the first house across from the spill,” Topmiller said.

He said his family has spent a lot of money on air filters and doctors’ bills.

“We have paid for all of this ourselves,” he added.

Topmiller conceded his family has filed a lawsuit against TVA, but contended they had to because of TVA’s response.

“We were lied to so much, we went out and got an attorney,” he said. “We’re mad as hell about this.”

Dennis Gregg made his way from Crossville to speak .

He, too, accused TVA officials of less-than-ethical behavior.

He said TVA has been in continuous, under-the-table conversations with Cumberland County Commissioners, quietly courting officials there to find disposal sites.

One proposal, to use the fly ash as fill at Smith Mountain coal mine, has stirred vehement protest from Cumberland County residents.

“I want to know when TVA stops doing things under the table and starts acting like a public agency,” Gregg said.

Glenn Daugherty, who lives on Emory River Road, across from the skimmer dam built to in an attempt to contain the ash from moving downstream, spoke from the gut.

He wanted to know if it was safe to use Emory River water to irrigate his vegetable garden.

Leo Francendese, EPA’s on-site coordinator over the cleanup, advised against it.

“I don’t have a science answer for you, but I wouldn’t until I knew better,” he said.

Francendese also reiterated that swimming and recreational boating in the Emory River, from about mile marker 5 to its mouth on the Clinch River, should be avoided.

Many people brought up concerns about dust coming from the fly ash.

Francendese said the main concern there is from silica, which when inhaled enough, can cause silicosis.The condition is marked by scarring and inflammation in the lungs, and the formation of nodular lesions.These can cause shortness of breath, fever and a lack of oxygen that makes the skin appear bluish.

Francendese said Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation officials are overseeing air tests.

“If that’s not sufficient enough, I might have to become more involved,” he said.

Gail Okulczyk, a Roane County resident and a member of the county’s environmental review board, raised concerns about gypsum ponds under construction to hold waste from a new scrubber to go online later this year.

“The gypsum pond is going to be huge,” she said.

She also made the point that nearly 450 coal-fired plants exist around the country.

“This could happen anywhere else,” she said.

Johnson listened patiently, and did not attempt to answer many questions at the town hall meeting. But she promised to look into every issue raised at Sunday’s meeting.

She also planned to tour the area Monday. Also expected to be in the area, according to community activisits, are crews from the TV magazine show "60 Minutes."