Coal Ash: 130 Million Tons of Waste

60 Minutes Investigates a Potentially Harmful Waste Byproduct that Inundated a Tenn. Town

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Asked how he lives now and whether he goes out on the water, Topmiller said, "No. We don't go out of the house."

From the house, he sees scientists collecting samples to analyze just how bad the water is. The river looks clear, but Topmiller says it's deceptive.

He shows Stahl a water sample he collected himself in a jar. "Turn it upside down and start shakin' it. And this is what the river looks like once it - once that stuff gets suspended in it," Topmiller said. As Stahl shakes the jar gray muck inside clouds the seemingly clear water. "And how they're gonna get that all out of the river, I don't have an idea."

Most of his neighbors have packed up and left. Go down the river and you pass home after home that are deserted, the hubbub of children replaced by the hum of heavy machinery.

Those left behind say the noise is one thing: what really infuriates them is executives from the power plant telling them that coal ash is as safe as dirt.

"We have broken the trust," Anda Ray said.

Ray oversees environmental policy at the Tennessee Valley Authority, which is responsible for the spill. Stahl asked her how toxic she thinks coal ash is.

"I'd say that the constituents, the things that are in the coal ash, are the same things that are naturally occurring in soil and rock," Ray replied.

"So, is it like dirt? Would you say that? Would you say that sentence? That stuff is like dirt," Stahl asked.

"That ash material is higher than dirt in two areas. And that is arsenic and thallium. And we are monitoring those and the effect on the water," Ray said.

Asked if she would swim in the river now, Ray told Stahl, "Yes, I would."

She later retracted, remembering there's an advisory against it. "We've advised people not to swim in the river where there's ash."

Stahl then asked about company reports repeatedly questioning the stability of the ash ponds.

"Should the TVA have seen this coming?" Stahl asked. "You were warned repeatedly."

"Lesley, there were red flags that have been noticed all through the years. And we recognize that those red flags should've been addressed. But yes, we missed them, and we don't ever want to miss them again," Ray replied.

The spilled ash is now being loaded onto trains and sent off to a dry landfill in Alabama. Right now, coal ash disposal is regulated by the states, some of which have strict rules, some hardly any at all.

The new head of the EPA, Lisa Jackson, is reviewing whether the federal government should get involved by labeling coal ash a "hazardous waste," which would mean much tighter regulations and oversight.

"Why wouldn't you right now, this minute, on 60 Minutes, declare that coal ash is a hazardous waste?" Stahl asked.

"EPA, in making a regulatory determination, has to look at a number of factors, including the toxicity of the material and how it's currently managed, but that's done according to law. And I have committed that no later than December, we will make a regulatory proposal with respect to this material," Jackson explained.

The industry opposes calling coal ash a hazardous waste. They're pushing for another solution: recycling.