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By DAMON LAWRENCE
Tony Scruggs is not a biologist or a scientist.
He’s just a man who enjoys watching the local wildlife from his lakefront home outside of Kingston.
“We used to see a lot of water snakes,” he said. “We’d watch them from the dock, and they’d come in there and swim right underneath us and get in my dock rocks.”
Scruggs said he hasn’t seen a lot of water snakes since a dike failure at TVA’s Kingston Fossil Plant released 5.4 million cubic yards of fly ash into the environment.
“I bet we didn’t see two the whole summer,” he said. “That just seems strange.”
Scruggs said he’s noticed a shortage of other species as well.
“My wife and I, we’d always point out turtles when they’d come by,” he said. “I kept telling her, ‘Let me know if you see a turtle.’ They’re not out there. At least that’s my observation from my dock.”
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency called the release at the fossil plant one of the worst environmental disasters of its kind in history. The area surrounding the plant was engulfed with ash.
“You had mussel beds covered with ash,” said Dennis Yankee, an environmental manager for TVA. “You had fish that were stranded on shore from the wave action. What we haven’t seen so far is any impact from the chemical constituents of the ash. Now, we’re early in this game.”
It’s been more than year since the disaster, but researchers say it’s likely to take a lot longer to determine the long-term impact on wildlife.
Several people are looking into it, including William Hopkins, an associate professor in the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife Sciences at Virginia Tech.
The ash contains constituents such as arsenic, cadmium, chromium, copper, lead, mercury, nickel, selenium and zinc, which are hazardous substances.
Geese have walked around in the material, and a hawk was seen perched on a mound of it during a recent tour of the disaster site.
Ducks were seen swimming in muck and debris after heavy rains in May pushed ash downstream.
Hopkins said he’s studied the effects of ash on wildlife for 15 years. TVA hired him to study the disaster’s impact on wildlife here.
“The studies have focused on determining whether osprey, great blue herons, Canada geese, tree swallows, several species of amphibians, turtles, and raccoons are accumulating trace elements in their tissues,” Hopkins wrote in an e-mail. “To date, the collective take-home message of the work is that there does not appear to be consistent accumulation of trace elements such as selenium and arsenic in any of the faunal groups examined.”
Hopkins called that good news for the wildlife in the area, but said more work needs to be done.
“Research in coming years – starting this spring – will continue to monitor trace element levels in tissues of animals, but will also determine whether the animals in the area are experiencing any adverse effects on their physiology, reproduction and survival,” Hopkins wrote. “This will provide a comprehensive understanding of whether the ash spill is having any adverse effects on wildlife in the area.”
Most of the ash that spilled during the disaster – 3 million cubic yards – ended up in the Emory River. TVA started dredging the river in March 2009 to remove the ash.
More than 2 million cubic yards has been removed, according to TVA.
There were concerns about how dredging would impact fish, so the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center was dispatched to the area to investigate.
Research biologist Jeff Steevens, the lead on the project, said they collected ash samples from the Emory River and took them back to the lab in Vicksburg, Miss. Fathead minnows were exposed to the dredging conditions in the lab.
“One of the conclusions in our report was that in the future we need to be looking at probably the long-term release of selenium and looking at the accumulation of selenium in the fish tissue and does it have any effect on the fish,” Steevens said. “That’s kind of one outstanding potential long-term issue that we did raise.”
Another issue is the forms of selenium and arsenic that are released from the fly ash during dredging.
“In this report, we have found that for selenium and arsenic, that it was the less toxic or the less bad of the types of metals,” Steevens said. “So it’s the less toxic form of arsenic and the less toxic form of selenium, but there are some potential processes where they can actually switch from the good form to the bad form.”
The Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation said the center’s study provided the basis for continued dredging of the Emory River.
Steevens said the study was probably shorter than what was necessary.
More research needs to be done, he suggested.
“We just looked at it for 10 days, and of course you know the fish are out there for years potentially getting exposed to this,” he said. “That’s kind of one area I think needs to be looked at.”
Scruggs said that’s why he has more faith in his own eyes than what studies conclude.
“Those people come, collect their samples and leave,” Scruggs said. “I’m out here on the water every day.”