Saturday, January 10, 2009

field report from Widow Creek blowout

James and I arrived in Stevenson, AL at the Widows Creek TVA plant around 4p.m. and were met by police blockades at all access roads. The only vehicles passing through were security vehicles and pump trucks. We took a side route and asked directions to the creek from a resident who had not been informed of the rupture. We explored the area on foot to get a better idea of the layout of the creek and decided to attempt to drive in closer.

From a nearby hill, we could see excavators, dump trucks, and water trucks out in full force. Helicopters flew constantly overhead, either patrolling or giving media tours of selected areas. We were briefly followed by two security vehicles then questioned by a police officer at a fork in the road. One led to TVA property and one led to private property.

We took the private property route and met a very helpful landowner whose farm stretches for 100 acres around the creek, right up to the edge of TVA property. He guided us to the best entry point to access the center flow of the creek for sampling, about 300 yards from the dam. The property owner said he regularly tests the creek water but hadn't taken any samples since the dam began leaking. He said he hadn't noticed anything strange during his hunting walks near the creek. According to him, TVA hadn't released any information to local residents, but from what he could tell, the spill is "nothing like what happened in Kingston" and he had heard the ash was escaping through a sinkhole.

With little daylight left, James stripped down and waded 100 yards from the bank up to the edge of the strongest current. He immediately noticed a consistent coating of grayish, gritty dust on the surface of the water. Nearby trees were banded by five rings of the light gray substance, the highest band measuring 6" above the surface of the water. He collected nine water samples that contained a large amount of the debris.

As the sun set and the last sample was being taken, we heard the pump trucks start up nearby. It was clear they intended to work through the night. We thanked the landowner and got permission to return the next day to take photographs and hike closer to the edge of his property to take samples further upstream. On our way out, we were followed to the highway by an unmarked police car.

We have just secured a pair of chest-high waders and several more sample jars and intend on returning to the creek in the next couple of hours. We will try to take samples further upstream and also at the point where Widows Creek enters the Tennessee River.

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