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The Scene at Swan Pond Road

The Great Coal Ash Flood

by MATT LANDON

I awoke at 7:30am in order to watch the Democracy Now coverage of the ash pond spill at 8am. After viewing the news coverage we headed out to the front lines. The day began around 10am as we were trying to define the perimeter of the ash pond spill. We began recording video on a road which was previously closed to vehicle traffic near a local church. TVA was trying to clear the Swan Pond Roadway with a bulldozer and bucket scoop. The bulldozer was spinning its tracks on the muddy asphalt. All of the coal ash waste was being pushed to either side of the road.

There is a large number of naturally occurring springs in the area. I bet that before the power plant was built that it was a beautiful place to drink water right from the ground. At least two of these springs were completely damned up by the coal ash spill and were beginning to back up leading to a threat of more flooding of local roads, houses, and farmland. It was horrible to see something as beautiful as a fresh water spring that could possibly be seen as a scourge due to man made damning. One resident quoted a TVA official who stated this was a "un-natural phenomenon." I agreed that a man-made disaster would be a un-natural phenomenon.

Swan Pond Rd was covered by 15 feet of coal sludge and so we traveled on Highland and some other back roads to access the main peninsula which faced the brunt of the tidal wave. As we drove we arrived at a road block with a local sheriff staffing the post. As we approached with running video we asked for access in order to distribute information about possible chemicals in the coal sludge, a request which he denied. We asked for specific instances in which we could travel through the roadblock and he gave us a short list. Of course our cause did not fit into that list. He was very friendly and did share some of his experiences as a local resident. He stated that "TVA had created a big mess."

As we stood and spoke he informed us the roadblock would open at 12pm, only 40 minutes from the present time. During this time we traveled along the open road handing out info. We also met Anne League of Save Our Cumberland Mountains who had snuck past the roadblock after doing an informative phone interview with Democracy Now earlier in the morning. We learned that residents living along this stretch of road had public water coming from Kingston, though many of the residents gave us differing answers about the source of their water.

As the clock neared 12pm we prepared to see the sight that no other on-the-ground media source had captured since the spill took place 3 days earlier. Most of the media coverage had occurred from the air. The images and angles that we had been seeking since being on the ground on day 1 had finally become a reality for us. This was a reality that the local residents had been living with for nearly 1/2 a week.

Some residents told us TVA had been dealing with leaks in the ash pond walls in 2004, 2006, and a month and half ago in 2008. We were not prepared for the devastation into which we drove. The enormity of the destruction was almost too much for us to handle. We set up the tripod and took the panoramic shots with a slow horizontal pan from left to right. As TVA workers replaced the power lines and local police patrolled to help maintain order in the disaster zone we video taped the legacy that TVA left for the Kingston/ Harriman area of Tennessee.

In an effort to capture the best shot possible we accidentally trespassed onto private property. As the local land owner came to inform us, we apologetically left the area after distributing some of our outreach materials. It is important to not overwhelm the local community and to take a humble approach to the work that we are undertaking as these people have been shat on by TVA and we should not add to the pile.

The goals of today were to gather as much video footage as possible, as many water samples as possible, and to get our outreach materials out to as many coal impacted residents as possible. I think that we succeeded at all of these goals today. We taped over an hour of footage.

We gathered more than 24 water samples. We distributed at least 75 packets of info to coal impacted and local residents.

Today we continued to learn that many of the local residents who were or could be considered "impacted" were not given any type of aid including hotels, fresh water, information, a knock on the door informing them what the heck that big crash was or what had happened. We also learned that the peninsula had become more of a prison camp for impacted residents rather than their home. Granted this is understandable and many residents were starting to complain about the number of cars traveling along their narrow road.

There were serious complaints about the overuse of police force in questioning and turning away family or visiting friends during the holidays. After some citizen complaints to elected officials the local police force decided they could no longer staff a blockade but they increased the patrols throughout the day.

Later in the afternoon a member of United Mountain Defense offered to buy 50 gallons of water to distribute to residents of Swan Pond Rd who were informed to "boil their water before drinking it." We learned that their water source actually came from a spring located near Harriman up in Frost Hollow a short distance from the ash pond spill. Unfortunately for these 40 households their drinking water pipe traveled through the spill area.

***

Yesterday we spoke with one man who had been vomiting for 12 hours after drinking a few pots of coffee made from the tainted water. We informed to go to the hospital and we could not find him again today. Today we met a lady whose dogs had been vomiting after drinking the un-boiled tainted water. This lady had been boiling water all day with one small electric eye in order to water her herd of dogs, have drinking water for her family, and cook the Christmas dinner. She was very happy to receive the multiple gallons of water. We grabbed samples of her tap water. Upon observation we saw large particles floating in the water.

The people working to put in a new water line for these residents had run into complications due to bedrock and had pushed back the scheduled completion of the waterline until Friday January 3, 2009. TVA was informing these residents to boil their water for the next 5 days. If TVA thinks residents need to boil the water first then it must not be safe. Why is it not safe? What are the problems? We need to know!

In the span of 1 hour we distributed all of the water to thirsty residents. Many were elderly men and women. Some had kidney problems. Some had not ingested the tap water for years now. A few of the people that we met asked that we give the water to others that needed it more and we received blessings, thanks, and praises for delivering water on Christmas Eve.

United Mountain Defense volunteers will be in the field early on Christmas Day delivering more water, filming from the lakefront, and meeting with coal impacted residents. The impacted coal residents of Tennessee don’t get a day off so we won’t take one off either.

As we drove back to Knoxville in the rain we began to plan how TVA’s criminal actions would impact our lives over the next few days, weeks, months and years. United Mountain Defense is in a unique situation at this time. This is the work that we have been training for for the past 5 years. This is the time to act. This is the major mistake that the coal industry and TVA does not want the world to know about. We can change the future. Join us please.

Check out our webpage at www.unitedmountaindefense.org

Check out this link with some of Santa’s videos http://dirtycoaltva.blogspot.com/

MATT LANDON is a volunteer with United Mountain Defense.