Final at 7 a.m.
HARRIMAN, Tenn. -- When members of Swan Pond United Methodist Church were finally allowed back into their church, the first thing they did was walk over to the cemetery to look at the damage. An environmental catastrophe lurked at the bottom of the hill.
Rivers of toxic gray sludge covered up roads and trees. Dump trucks rumbled by, loaded with ash, leaving muddy trails. A church member pointed out where the landscape had been permanently altered by the accident that shook the community out of their beds on Dec. 22.
“I woke up about 1:15 a.m. when I heard the sirens – big fire trucks – going by,” said Charles McSween, who has lived on Swan Pond Circle since 1955.
Swan Pond is one of four United Methodist churches located within a few miles of the billion-gallon spill that came from a Tennessee Valley Authority coal-burning plant in Roane County. The 300-acre disaster was the topic of a U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing on Jan. 8.
“It’s heartbreaking. It’s tearing us all to pieces,” said Brenda Hendrickson, who has attended Swan Pond church for the last 10 of her 47 years in Harriman. “The workers, the equipment, the trucks – it’s the only way it can be cleaned up, but it’s disrupting our lives.”
Swan Pond UMC overlooks the area where three homes were destroyed and the Emory River was clogged with contents of a retention pond that burst. Harriman UMC and Midtown Valley UMC have hosted heated community meetings -- including one attended by movie legend and environmental legalist Erin Brockovich.
All three churches, as well as Kingston UMC, have members who might be affected by resulting health hazards or declining property values. Many are past or present employees of Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA).
“We are mutually tied together in this mess, and we are tied together in how we work through it,” said the Rev. Katye Fox, pastor of Harriman UMC and Midtown Valley UMC.
Since Christmas, the Oak Ridge District pastor has checked on parishioners living near the spill site while opening her churches to the city council, landowners, lawyers, and the media. The churches were asked to host meetings because the buildings are spacious and convenient and because prominent citizens are members, Fox said.
“I’m thrilled that they’re meeting in the church. Thank God this is happening in the church and not in some neutral territory, so that we can go forward together,” Fox said.
Reactions to the disaster vary, reflecting the county's reaction at large. Some express anger toward lawyers pursuing litigation against TVA on behalf of landowners. Others were pleased to meet with Brockavich and her team in a closed meeting at Midtown Valley UMC on Jan. 8. To date, two lawsuits had been filed again TVA, claiming the dike that retained the toxic waste was faulty for many years
Some residents showed anger toward TVA officials during a town hall meeting at Harriman UMC on Jan. 6, while others said they trust the historical agency.
“I understand the frustrations, but give TVA a chance,” said Mike Hill, a member at Swan Pond UMC. Like McSween, Hill is retired from TVA after decades of service. He and his father, the Rev. Louis Hill, were recently invited to a briefing on the agency's planned response.
“I have confidence in TVA – that they’ll clean this up and that we’ll be safe,” said Hendrickson, a retired bookkeeper in her 60s. “They have promised the people they will take care of it and do the best they can. This fly ash has been with us a long time, anyway. There are people who work around things that a lot more dangerous.”
A byproduct of burning coal for power production, fly ash contains heavy metals such as arsenic, lead, barium and thallium, which have been linked to cancer, liver damage, and neurological disorders.
Terry and Sandy Gupton, members of Kingston UMC, own a cattle farm. Thirty-five of their 250 acres are covered by ash-tainted lake water and debris from the broken dike.
When the sludge began to push the lake from its bed, the couple had to quickly move their livestock to safe ground and shut off a spring that provides drinking water. Neighbors whose roads were flooded had to drive their vehicles through the Gupton pastures to escape the encroaching waters.
Concerned for their livestock and own personal health, the Guptons plan to sell their property and relocate. Attorneys have already filed a lawsuit on their behalf.
“My husband makes his living off this farm,” said Sandy Gupton. “I don’t want to be here, and I don’t want to raise our cattle here.”
Monica Ethridge, a member at Harriman UMC, has two children, ages 11 and 7. She says she will also sell her house, located less than a half-mile from the sludge site.
“We can no longer use the beautiful lake in front of our house for fear of what is in it,” said Ethridge. “I can’t risk my children’s health, but the loss we have taken can’t be replaced -- the long days on the lake, playing in the backyard until dark, and riding bikes along the lakeside that we loved so much.”
Valley of ashes
The pastor of Swan Pond UMC canceled worship on the first Sunday after the spill because the roads leading to the church were covered by sludge or barricaded by authorities.
Later, the 15-person congregation was upset to learn that traffic from the clean-up workers and onlookers had left tire ruts in the cemetery lawn.
“Everybody wants to get up on the hill to look at the damage,” explained Hill, pastor of the 160-year-old church for 22 years.
On the following Sunday, Jan. 4, members asked police to temporarily open a back road to the church so worshippers could come. Before the service, members stood on the hill among grave plots, looking over the valley of ashes.
According to the Knoxville News Sentinel, TVA has promised to compensate families for their losses. Both McSween and Hendrickson, whose homes are located within walking distance of the sludge-filled lake, said they aren’t interested in selling.
“My property value might go down for a while, but it will go back up,” McSween said.
“I don’t want to live anywhere else but here,” Hendrickson said.
Tom Grizzard, a member at Harriman UMC, owns 200 acres of land, along with his relatives, near the Kingston steam plant. The retired environmental sciences engineer for Oak Ridge National Laboratory has been interviewed by many media sources.
He told the Huffington Post he wasn’t willing to leave the land once owned by his grandfather. His property was spared from the sludge, but Grizzard said he was worried his family would deal with fallout from the disaster for a long time. He told the Roane County News that his peace on the acreage, where he and his sons like to fish and hunt, had been disturbed by helicopters overhead and clean-up crews on the ground.
“My concern right now is all these big old dump trucks,” Grizzard said. “It's hard to get out of our driveway at times. They have no respect for speed limits.”
During the Swan Pond worship service on Jan. 4, the ash spill was never mentioned, except when a woman asked for prayers for the community, the clean-up workers, and the landowners.
The Midtown Valley and Harriman congregations “definitely do a lot of praying” about the disaster’s effects, said Fox.
“As residents we will have to pay attention to air and water quality,” she said, “and there are a lot of people who really worried about the wildlife, because they know the animals are continuing to walk through this.”
Many residents have already begun to drink bottled water, Fox said, although authorities have said the local water is safe.
“Because I have severe asthma, I will personally have to take precautions for my own health,” the pastor said. “But I’m not going to freak out. I’m not going to panic.”