Iron-gray sludge sucks at the soles of Terry Gupton's boots. It covers his hay and poisons the natural spring that has for years watered his herd of 100 or so Gelbvieh cattle. Around him are the carcasses of turtles, carp, gar, crappie and shad, their eye sockets vacant and their bodies desiccating in grass choked by a tidal wave of fly ash. The scent of putrefaction slips down his wife's throat.
"Even the buzzards won't touch it," says Sandy Gupton, a handsome, fine-boned woman. "I imagine once [the water] goes down the stench is going to be bad."
On Dec. 22, just after midnight, a section of the fly ash collection pond at the Tennessee Valley Authority's Kingston plant ruptured, loosing more than 1 billion gallons of toxic sludge. The mixture of water and ash—with dangerous concentrations of arsenic and other heavy metals—coated roughly 300 acres, leaving swaths of Harriman and Kingston contaminated and uninhabitable.
The surge swept over a portion of Gupton's 250-acre spread, situated in verdant bottomlands surrounded by low hills. Hay-growing earth now sits foul beneath a dead lake. His cattle are drinking city water at a price that makes him cringe. "The cost is going to be tremendous to provide that," he says.
The couple doesn't know what will become of their little farm. The poisons will eventually leach into groundwater from which their purebred cattle drink. And the health of hundreds of their neighbors will be subject to invisible toxins that will lace the area for decades to come.
Gupton's livelihood is dependent on his ability to make do with what he has. But after Dec. 22, almost all he has is worthless. Nearby, a neighbor with cancer has been told by his doctor not to return to the area. A man with such a delicate immune system cannot contest the largest fly ash spill in U.S. history.
On the other side of a pine-crested hill, John Bailey heard a concussion just after midnight on Dec. 22. He thought it was the massive shudder of a coal train. The following morning, when he stepped onto his back porch that looks out over Watts Bar Lake, he knew it was no train. Part of the cinderblock retaining wall around his boat launch laid in piles, some of it washed to the neighbor's landing 100 yards away.
Islands of fly ash and tree trunks now stud the surface of the lake more than a mile from the plant. Wife Brenda can only shake her head while her eyes moisten. Her grandchildren won't be swimming here anymore. She doesn't know if they should even drink the water. Her daughter didn't want to visit for New Year's Eve; she insisted the Baileys come to them. But more than the sullied aesthetics, Brenda, like many residents, fears the invisible.
"My nerves is tore up," she says with iridescent eyes and a smoker's raspy voice. "Since this happened, I've got upper respiratory infections. I've been coughing and dry heaving. I can't get nothing up. I started staying with my daughter in her house. There's 11 of us living in a house."
She's terrified by the sight of men in white hazardous materials suits working nearby. What aren't they telling her about the toxins in the lake, or the ash kicked airborne by dump trucks that rumble down these roads? What will happen when it dries and whips over the countryside, spirited by the wind coursing through these East Tennessee hills?
But there's not much they can do. Their homes are all but worthless; no one's shopping for fixer-uppers on a hazardous waste site. And without ample nest eggs, few have the money to leave.
"The most we could hope for is TVA buying our property," Brenda Bailey says. "It's ruined. We don't even have the money to relocate."
"This is my last stop. My last chance," adds resident Sarah McCoin. "I don't want to go anywhere, but I don't want to be contaminated, either."
Johnny Owens owns land nearby, where ash is washed up on his sister's front steps. Each day he passes dump trucks trailing curtains of dust. He rolls his window up as quickly as he can, but he's beginning to get those familiar headaches, the kind he had when he worked in asbestos and arsenic removal. Folks won't get sick immediately, he knows, but the piles of ash speak to an unforgiving future.
"I've actually talked to people who don't live in that immediate area but are talking about packing up and leaving out," he says.
Most will end up sticking it out, largely because they have no choice. On the porch of the American Legion, two born-and-bred Harriman men discuss an uncertain future. One props himself up with blind hope. The other is less optimistic.
"If you could leave, would you?" Johnny Owens asks the man who wishes to remain anonymous because his brother works for TVA.
He says he'll stay.
"Even if the dust was blowin'?" Owens presses.
"Yeah, I'd still live here."
"Even with the arsenic?"
"I'm going to always live here."
"Regardless of the results?"
"Well...I hope they'll take care of it."
"What about your life? What if a doctor told you you had five years to live if you stayed?"
"Well...no," he replies. "I just want it back the way it was."
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