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LUMP OF COAL AWARD WINNER: Ash spill money pays for pet projects

By   /   December 22, 2010  /   2 Comments

By Christopher Butler

Elected officials in Roane County, Tenn. are using a disastrous ash spill in 2008 as an excuse to fund some of their most coveted (and expensive) pet projects – none of which had anything to do with the ash spill.

Those officials are using $43 million of government money to fund, among other things, the renovation of an abandoned theater, which lies in the center of an economically-depressed part of the county.

Two government officials in the county, coincidentally, are members of a board that was created with the sole purpose of renovating that theater.

The money is also being used to fund an expensive public relations campaign that local officials hope will generate more tourism and create a better image for the county throughout the state.

Unfortunately, none of the money is being used to help the people who continue to face serious problems two years after the environmental catastrophe – even though these people need the financial help and say they have never received any compensation for their loss.

Empty homes

The beauty of Harriman, Tenn. is not readily apparent to anyone who drives through it on Interstate 40 in Roane County, near Knoxville.

One has to exit the interstate to appreciate its lush mountain scenery, as well as the Tennessee River that runs through it.

Take a drive down Swan Pond Circle Road in Harriman, however, and you’ll realize that this particular neighborhood is one of the least desirable areas to live in all of Tennessee.

This situation is ironic, because the average passerby might see this section of the city as prime real estate – and a quiet, safe place to live. The neighborhood has a lot of trees and enough green grass for families to run and play. A church is within walking distance.

The neighborhood has direct access to the interstate, and various businesses are only a few miles away.

There is at least one drawback to living in the area – the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) operates its Kingston Fossil Plant nearby to generate electricity, perhaps causing a few disruptions in terms of traffic and noise.

Most of the residents who lived in this neighborhood, though, are long gone.

The homes are empty, and no one else wants to move in.

Visitors will notice a sign on each home’s front door advising them that most of these properties now belong to the TVA.

Few people live on Swan Pond Circle Road anymore because of a well-publicized disaster that happened at the fossil plant on Dec. 22, 2008. People remember this as the day when an accident at that plant released 5.4 million cubic yards of ash on to 300 acres of nearby land, about eight of which TVA did not own. The ash destroyed three homes and knocked another off its foundation. The ash spill damaged other homes as well, said Barbara Martocci, TVA spokeswoman.

Local residents remember the accident vividly.

“The spill was a massive, horrendous thing,” said Roane County resident Steve Scarborough.

“It was miraculous that no one was killed. It was miraculous that the thing blew out the way it did. If it had blown out in the other direction, then it would have taken out the plant, its ammonia tanks, and, if they’d ruptured, maybe the lives of thousands of people who had been downwind of it,” Scarborough said.

Eventually, the ash made its way into the nearby Emory and Clinch rivers.

Within one month officials with the federally-owned TVA started buying affected properties, based on property values made before the spill.

What’s more, TVA officials offered an additional $43 million in federal money to local government officials – all designed to help the community recover from the disaster. Those local government officials organized themselves into the Roane County Economic Development Foundation and distributed the money as they saw fit. To see a chart of the foundation’s members and their ties to local communities, click here.

The ash spill affected none of the schools in Roane County, but foundation members gave the bulk of the money ($32 million) to the Roane County School System for various building projects.

The ash spill didn’t affect an abandoned theater in nearby Harriman, but committee members, two of whom are on the theater restoration committee’s board of directors, are using $1.7 million of TVA money to restore the theater.

Committee members are using the rest of the money for various infrastructure and public relations expenditures, which they said are needed to help the county’s image after the ash spill.

That ash spill, though, is adversely affecting the quality of life for some other residents of Roane County, all of whom live beyond Swan Pond Circle Road. The ash spill damaged the environment near their homes, not to mention their property values, they said.

Those people have yet to receive any money from the foundation or TVA.

‘A payoff to the local politicians’

Immediately after the accident, ash made its way downriver to Harriman resident Scott Boyes’ riverfront property.

The ash spill affected his quality of life in two ways. The hazardous materials threatened his family’s health (as a former environmental specialist, Boyes recognizes and understands the dangers of radioactive materials).

Secondly, the spill devalued his property, which is still a problem almost two years later.

Boyes doesn’t shy away from his opinion on the foundation and how its members have distributed the $43 million.

“The $43 million was a payoff to the local politicians. Before we even knew they had the money, they had already allocated it to their pet projects,” Boyes said.

“I think that the money for the Princess Theater was a joke. Look around the street in that area and see just how dead that part of town is right now. We don’t need a Princess Theater to revitalize Harriman. We need more businesses to revitalize Harriman.”

The mayor of that city has another opinion.

City officials will spark more interest in downtown Harriman and attract new businesses there if they renovate the theater, said Harriman Mayor Chris Mason, who is also a member of the Princess Theater Restoration Committee’s board of directors, as well as the foundation that handed the theater $1.7 million.

“Restoring the theater is a project that’s been ongoing for a couple of years. We requested that money to finish this project,” Mason said.

Once the restoration work is done, students at a local community college will use the complex as a local TV station. Princess Theater officials will also use the building to hold media classes, present concerts and show old movies, Mason said.

The theater is 71 years old, and many Harriman residents consider it an historic structure, according to Mason.

“Restoring it (the theater) will bring vibrancy back to our community. It will draw a lot of activity back to our downtown, including retail stores that will piggyback off that activity. I received a letter from a developer just last week, and he is interested in buying some of the (abandoned) buildings downtown for business and median- income housing (because of the theater restoration),” Mason said.

Harriman officials will use another $200,000 they received from the foundation to renovate its 100-year-old public library. They will also use $100,000 on road-paving projects, according to Martocci.

The fact that foundation members are using the $43 million to pay for things that the ash spill never affected upsets Boyes.

Mason, though, believes the money is an investment tool, and it’s important that people have positive thoughts about the city and the county, he said.

“We are trying to make it (Roane County) better than it was before the ash spill. We want to change people’s minds about our area (after the spill). Too many people on the outside looked at our county and assumed it was an unsafe place to live. All of these projects are viable and tied to economic development,” Mason said.

The number of homes under construction throughout the county decreased since December 2008, as did the number of boating activities, Mason said. No one interviewed knows for certain if that was a result of the ash spill or the downturn in the national economy that began two years ago –the two events occurred at almost the same time.

County officials haven’t used empirical evidence to gauge if the county suffered economically because of the ash spill.

“The county would have needed an economist to do a study to determine how the county was affected. We know it was affected badly –we just don’t know an exact number,” Mason said.

Boyes, meanwhile, doesn’t expect to receive any money from TVA officials for the debris that damaged his property, even though he’s tried unsuccessfully to get it. That’s because his house isn’t in the immediate impact zone of the ash spill, he said.

“I can’t sell my property here. My neighbors can’t sell their property,” Boyes said.

A real-estate agent in Roane County refused to comment on whether he can now sell properties in the area. The man cited his attorney’s advice that he not speak publicly on the matter.

A public relations campaign

Scarborough, a resident of Rockwood, also in Roane County, owns property along the Emory River that the ash spill affected. A significant amount of ash made its way near that property, and Scarborough hasn’t managed to sell that land.

“Even though there were hints of a recession (before the spill) we weren’t seeing evidence of it here. We were mostly getting people from up north who had retired (to purchase our property). We had been doing very well. We had an increase in sales that month –but then it completely tanked after the ash spill. I haven’t had a single showing of my property since then,” Scarborough said.

Scarborough hasn’t received any money from the TVA. He doesn’t expect that TVA officials will offer any. He and other Roane County residents who were affected by the ash spill, and who have yet to receive compensation from TVA, don’t want punitive damages (or those necessary to compensate a person beyond his or her financial loss).

“These are people who just want out or to be paid for the value of what they have so they can go somewhere else. Rightly or wrongly, people in our community view this ($43 million) as hush money for the politicians rather than an actual effort on TVA’s behalf to compensate people who were harmed,” Scarborough said.

The people who received money from the TVA signed non-disclosure agreements that prevent them from speaking publicly, according to one woman who still lives on Swan Pond Circle Road. That woman also signed a non-disclosure agreement with the agency, meaning she could say no more.

The city of Rockwood, meanwhile, which is about eight miles from the site of the spill and relies on revenue from tourism, bass tournaments and baseball, will receive almost $2 million for infrastructure projects. Among other things, that money will pay to repair the city’s sewer line, said Rockwood Mayor James Watts, who is also on the foundation that provided that funding to the city.

“These are things that we’ve been needing for a quite a while. The ideas of raising taxes and bond elections have all been under study. We just didn’t have the funds to do anything with it. There was no way we could take on these programs without that influx (of money),” Watts said.

The city of Kingston, meanwhile, suffered the most in terms of public relations, because the city’s name is synonymous with the fossil plant, said Mayor Troy Beets, another foundation board member.

“We have been fighting a conception put forth by a lot of entities, whether right or wrong, who assume everything was terrible where the ash went into the water. Kingston is actually a little bit further down the stream. The biggest suffering for the city of Kingston is the public image that our city was devastated by the ash spill, even though the plant isn’t in the Kingston city limits,” Beets said.

“Six months later, some ash did come down the river (our way), but, as far as impact, the city of Kingston’s recreational water quality was impacted a little bit, but it quickly subsided,” Beets said.

The TVA is giving the city of Kingston the sum of $5 million for sanitary sewer upgrades, according to a release from the TVA. The city’s infrastructure is more than 30 years old. Without the TVA money, city officials might have had to raise water rates on local citizens to replace that infrastructure, Beets said.

“We can tell hotels, motels, restaurants and businesses that want to come to Kingston that we can handle their wastewater. This will allow us to grow beyond the foreseeable time,” Beets said.

“There’s still a little bit of money left. I had requested that we set aside $1 million for public image repair. I imagine we (the foundation members) will meet to possibly talk more about that,” Beets said.

The biggest recipient of the TVA money is the Roane County School System.

Toni H. McGriff, the director of schools, who is also on the Princess Theater Restoration Committee Board of Directors that secured $1.7 million for that facility, plans to use the $32 million for building projects at several Roane County schools. Those projects will include a new gymnasium at one school, a new cafeteria at one school and new classrooms at various other schools, she said.

The city of Oliver Springs, which is the farthest from the ash spill, is receiving the least amount of money from the TVA ($25,000).

City officials will use that money for an economic plan and tourism campaign, said Mayor Chris Hepler.

Attempts to reach TVA officials for a follow-up interview were unsuccessful.

Members of a Roane County Economic Development Foundation are using $43 million of taxpayer funds (from the TVA) to help the county recover after a devastating ash spill in December 2008.

FUNDS DISTRIBUTED

CITY OF HARRIMAN:

• Princess Theater: $1.7 million

• Public library improvements: $200,000

• Road paving: $100,000

CITY OF ROCKWOOD:

• Industrial Park entrance paving: $31,194.90

• Health facility project: $20,000

• Main Street project: $7,000

PROJECTS AWAITING/RECEIVING FUNDING

CITY OF ROCKWOOD:

• Infrastructure projects: $1.905 million (awaiting project schedules and information to proceed with drafting funding agreement)

• Health facility project: $35,000

ROANE COUNTY:

• Roane County Schools: $32 million – invoices paid when received – paid $3.2 million to date

• Property tax payments: $160,296 – discussing funding requirements

• Public relations assistance: $1 million

• Roane Alliance Retail Marketing project: $30,175

CITY OF KINGSTON:

• Sanitary sewer upgrades: $5 million – invoices paid when received – paid $400,000 to date

CITY OF OLIVER SPRINGS:

• Economic Plan and Tourism campaign: $25,000 (determining project details)

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