Roane County -- the next Three Mile Island?

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Unnatural disasters leave reputations to repair

By The Staff



Roane County Executive Mike Farmer said perception — not reality — is one of the biggest obstacles to a full recovery from the TVA ash spill.

If one of the worst environmental disasters in American history is any indication, Roane County could be rehabbing its image for decades.

“I think this has the potential to be the coal industry’s Three Mile Island,” Farmer said.

This month will mark 30 years since the incident at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant near Middletown, Pa.

Robert Reid, the mayor there, still gets quizzed about the incident.

“A lot of times people would say to me, ‘You don’t glow at night, do you?’” Reid said. “Then they would ask if I’ve ever seen a two-headed goat or a 20-pound strawberry. I’ve never seen a two-headed goat or a 20-pound strawberry, but those were some of the reports that came out of the incident.”

The Dec. 22 disaster at TVA’s Kingston Fossil Plant released an estimated 5.4 million cubic yards of fly ash into the Emory River and surrounding areas.

The fly ash, which is a byproduct of coal burning, came spilling out after a retention pond gave way.

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission calls the Three Mile Island incident the most serious in U.S. commercial nuclear power plant history.

The March 28, 1979, incident caused a radioactive release after a reactor malfunctioned.

The NRC called the exposure very small, but the incident was big news all around the world.

“It’s always in the back of the people’s mind in this area,” Reid said. “I know many times when the sirens blow, my communications center will get calls from people wanting to know if there’s anything going on down at the island.”

Three Mile Island is so entrenched in American lore that Hooters restaurant even named a spicy hot wing sauce after it.

Reid said anniversaries in five- and 10-year increments usually cause the incident to be reexamined by news organizations.


Time will tell if the ash spill will have a similar shelf life, but the hoopla and hysteria surrounding the ash spill and the Three Mile Island incident are similar.

Both left people wondering about the future, had politicians from all levels of government asking questions, created health concerns and spawned an all out media invasion.

“Well, we received a lot of media attention,” Reid said. “Some of it was good. Some of it was bad.”

Roane Countians can expect the same. Litigation, investigations, activists and the media will keep Roane County and the spill in the spotlight for years.

“I’m not diminishing the impact to the people in that whole community over there,” Farmer said. “It is horrible, but I think from a national news perspective, it is much more widespread than the 276 acres that it covers.”

Perception can be hard to overcome.

Three Mile Island communications manager Ralph DeSantis said it’s one of the reasons they’ve stayed in the limelight all these years.

“Because the event got so much attention, people believe there must have been more of an impact than there actually was,” he said.

Perception is already impacting Roane County.

While testing results have shown local drinking water to be safe, the ash spill has made residents from neighboring counties leery about Roane County water.

The Crab Orchard Utility District in Cumberland County is considering purchasing water from Harriman to service the Plateau Partnership Park.

Crab Orchard General Manager Everett Bolin Jr. said that’s sparked an outcry from some Crab Orchard customers.

“It’s perception mainly, because I’m confident all that water over there is safe to drink,” Bolin said. “But the environmentalists got word of it and they put out a bunch of wrong information. Once the people heard what they had to say, they were upset and said they don’t want any water from over there.”


Just as there were numerous studies about the health effects the Three Mile Island incident had on residents in the Middletown  area, Roane County will likely serve as a case study for scholars and scientists looking to examine the long term health impact of the ash spill.

“We know that TVA is doing their own study, but we thought it would be nice to have a scientifically unbiased investigation,” said Avner Vengosh, associate professor of earth and ocean sciences at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment.

Researchers from Duke visited Roane County in January and collected water and ash samples.

After careful examination, Vengosh said they determined the spill has the potential to cause severe health problems.

“It depends, for example, if there will be dust development and resuspension of the sludge into the atmosphere,” Vengosh said. “That’s where the danger could be for health risk for the local population.”

TVA continues to maintain that air quality in the area is fine. However, surveys conducted by the Tennessee Department of Health found people in the area continue to have concerns about their well-being, despite all the reassuring test results.

Deputy State Epidemiologist David Kirschke said there’s a perception among some residents that the ash spill has created a health hazard. Residents reported worsening of cough, headache, wheezing and shortness of breath.

“We feel all residents’ concerns are valid, however, it is not possible (to) distinguish between the many possible causes of the symptoms being reported,” Kirschke wrote.

Vengosh said they plan  follow-up studies. He said some of the biggest health challenges for Roane County lie ahead.

“When the dry season comes, then it will be more probability of formation of dust,” he said.


The ash spill has sparked calls for a closer examination of the coal-fired power industry. With many questions about the spill still unanswered, that’s not likely to end anytime soon.

“For those people that would like to have a forum to talk about coal, this is certainly a viable venue,” Farmer said.

Reid said it was the nuclear industry, not his town, that was most tarnished.

Following the incident, the thought of being near a nuclear power plant raised fears in communities across America. U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission spokesman Scott Burnell said the number of companies seeking licenses also dried up.

“So from essentially ’79 up until 2007, we hadn’t had anybody start the process, but there were several reactors that finished the process after Three Mile Island,” he said.

The NRC, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the state of Pennsylvania were among agencies that investigated the incident. According to the NRC, health and environmental problems could not be directly tied to the radiation.

“Although questions were raised about possible adverse effects from radiation on human, animal and plant life in the TMI area, none could be directly correlated to the accident,” the NRC’s Three Mile Island report states.

Reid said he’s not so sure that’s the case. The actual number of people adversely affected by the incident is probably not known, he said.

“The so-called experts will say, ‘Well, these people would have died of cancer anyway,’” Reid said. “I don’t think we’ll ever really know.”

Three Mile Island still produces nuclear energy today, although the reactor that malfunctioned is permanently shut down.

Farmer said he hopes TVA will permanently shut down its method of storing fly ash in retention ponds.

That could ease concerns that the incident could happen again.

“We don’t want anymore wet ash storage in Roane County,” Farmer said.