Here is a good NYT article on what's going on. The excerpt that stands out to me is this:
The Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation also released a statement saying there was no indication of risk unless the ash was ingested.
But residents like Deanna Copeland were thinking further into the future.
“Our concern is, what happens if this liquid dries out?” Ms. Copeland said. “There are huge health concerns. It’s going to get in our house. We’re going to breathe it in. It would be like walking through a dust bowl, and we don’t know what’s in the dust.”
A round-the-clock cleanup effort continued on Friday, much of it clearing roads and railway tracks that were blocked by the sludge. Several booms, or skimmers, were installed on nearby rivers to catch floating cenospheres, a valuable component of the ash used to make bowling balls and other manufactured goods. A weir, or underwater dam, that would keep settled ash from moving downstream was about one-fifth completed, T.V.A. officials said.
Some nearby residents said that the authority had done little to address their concerns.
“We’re terribly frustrated,” said Donald Smith, 58, a laboratory facilities manager who lives in the affected area. “It seems like T.V.A. is just throwing darts at the problem, and they don’t have a clue how to really fix it.
“It was nice that they came by to talk to us. They’re making an effort. But what upsets me is they didn’t have a plan in place. Why hadn’t anybody thought, ‘What happens if this thing bursts?’ ”
Residents said they were stunned by the new figure for the size of the spill.
“That’s scary to know that they can be off by that much,” said Angela Spurgeon, whose dock and yard are swamped with ash. “I don’t think it was intentional, but it upsets me to know that a number was given of what the pond could hold, and the number now is more than double.”
That's been bugging me too. There was a number given for how much ash was in the damn pond, and almost twice that much has now flooded one of the fifty states. If someone would bother to explain that, I would be pleased.
In general, as the astute citizens of Tennessee have noted, the lack of any kind of wide-scale plan here is really frightening. I'm not just talking about having a contingency plan in place before this happened; I mean a plan now for how to deal with it going forward, because they're not going to be able to just hose everything down and then forget it. There will probably be environmental contamination for years. It's possible that people would be well advised to move, if only temporarily. (Hopefully they could stay within TN, because from the state's point of view, especially under these economic conditions, they really can't afford to tell people to leave because it's not safe to live in Tennessee.) They're going to have to build a new storage facility. They're going to have to overhaul regulations of the plant (the Governor has promised more oversight). They're going to have to go through the Tennessee Valley Authority, which runs the plant, with a fine-toothed comb and figure out what the hell happened there (how did twice as much ash as was supposed to exist end up in the pond? Why was ash being stored in a facility deemed inappropriate for this type of waste by environmentalists? Why was there no contingency plan? Why is the entire TVA apparently composed of fuckwits?) They're going to have to go through government archives with an equally fine-toothed comb and figure out how these disastrous decisions and gaps in foresight were approved or allowed by the state and, I hope, fire some people and make some rules. If they don't have some sort of office or authority in place for disaster management they need to damn well establish one.
I'm just not seeing any acknowledgement that this cleanup project is going to be a central issue for TN for years going forward and it makes me worried.
And then there's the short term. The TVA has not exactly covered itself in glory here. They have not informed people. They have not even acknowledged that the sludge "might" be toxic. They have not tested the water, or at least they haven't released any findings of such tests. Environmental advocacy groups and activists have been taking matters into their own hands to inform people, sometimes having to correct misinformation from state officials. Also, where the hell are the feds on this? Apparently the EPA is "overseeing the cleanup" and will determine its further involvement "when the extent of the contamination is known." (Same article as at the start of this paragraph.) This is the biggest fucking environmental disaster in the United States, ever in history, and they're not sure if they're going to be needed on this job? Is this not their goddamn purpose?
The thought giving me nightmares here is that this is going to be a slower, lower-profile replay of Katrina--a (sort of) natural disaster that was allowed through negligence, incompetence, and disinterest to kill, injure, sicken, and/or displace far more people than was ever necessary. Except this one isn't all over the nightly news where people can see it.