Hundreds of workers are still continuing a massive cleanup around the Kingston Fossil Plant by the Tennessee Valley Authority facility (TVA). But people are apprehensive of long term impacts.
Late at night, three days before Christmas, earthen walls surrounding one of the plant's retention areas gave in, sending more than a billion gallons of the ash - enough to fill 1,500 Olympic-sized swimming pools coursing into surrounding waterways and some private properties.
No one was harmed, but what about the long-term health effects from the ash? For it contains potentially harmful contaminants such as arsenic.
That apart, residents of the neighbourhood are haunted by the thoughts of what would happen to their economy and culture, long defined by the picturesque waterways that snake through the lush Appalachian hill country.
"We're worried about the arsenic and whatever other contaminants are in the water, and we're worried about anything getting airborne," Mike Thomas of Roane County said. "On a lower level, we're worried about recreation hunting, boating and fishing.
State and federal officials Wednesday were awaiting results of soil testing. Preliminary air tests show no problems, although windy weather could change that. Meanwhile, some water samples taken close to the ash piles have found levels of arsenic and other pollutants that exceed drinking water standards. Officials are monitoring private wells, and say drinking water in municipal systems is safe - for now.
Company officials have not determined the cause of the wall failure. Nor can they say how long the cleanup will take, or how much it will cost.
With so many unanswered questions, life in this county of 54,000 people has entered an unpleasant state of limbo. Health officials have advised residents to stay away from the ash, and to wash their hands thoroughly if they do get around it. The county school system altered its bus routes to keep a safe distance from the spill. Recreational boating has been suspended on the Emory River, parts of which have been rendered impassable.
Residents like Jeff Spurgeon who built waterfront dream homes now find themselves steps away from a man-made ecological nightmare.
"It's devastating, it really is," said Spurgeon, 43. The phone company worker and his wife saved for years to build the 4,400-square foot brick home along a cove that has become, literally, a giant ashtray.
The disaster carries a hint of irony for longtime residents: If there was a concern about ecological threats, it came from a few miles south, where the TVA operates a nuclear plant; or a few miles northeast around the Oak Ridge National Laboratories, where a cleanup of nuclear arms production sites has dragged on for years, writes Richard Fausset in Los Angeles Times.
The spill also promises to test the store of goodwill built up over the decades by the TVA, the mammoth federally owned utility created during the Depression to provide energy, flood control and economic development to a large swath of the rural South.
TVA measures brought stability to the three rivers that meet here the Emory, the Clinch and the Tennessee which were subject to deadly flooding. A dam to the south broadened the rivers' contours, helping popularize the area as a fishing and boating spot. More recently, waterfront real estate attracted retirees from around the country. The local economic development agency distributes brochures of lake scenes, with a now unfortunate slogan: "Overflowing with possibilities."
But that is history now. People want TVA to own up the responsibility for the developments.
John Moulton, a TVA spokesman, said the ash pile was stored according to state regulations and monitored regularly.
The company is not only busy cleaning up the mess, but it is also deputing its representatives to talk to the worried locals and allay their apprehensions.
Indications are the people are not going to be that easily placated and the TVA has to brace itself against a tide of litigation.
This week, the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, an environmental nonprofit, filed notice of its intent to sue TVA under the federal Clean Water and Resource Conservation and Recovery acts. Four property owners have also reportedly sued the TVA in state court, seeking $165 million in damages.