Could Toxic Spill Be Warning Sign?

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An aerial view shows homes that were destroyed when a retention pond wall collapsed at the Tennessee Valley Authorities Kingston Fossil Plant, Monday, Dec. 22, 2008 in Harriman, Tenn. The Tennessee Valley Authority says the 40-acre pond held a slurry of ash generated by the coal-burning Kingston Steam Plant.
AP Photo/Wade Payne

In a landscape so blackened, so altered by a billion gallons of spilled coal ash, Crystelle Flinn tells CBS News correspondent Mark Strassmann she can only guess where her house once stood.

"Heartbreaking," she said. "It's heartbreaking."

Thursday she watched a bulldozer knock down her former home's ruins.

What's the most heartbreaking part of it for her?

"Knowing that the property and the land will never be the same," Flinn said.

On Thursday in Washington, a U.S. Senate committee grilled Tom Kilgore, the CEO of the Tennessee Valley Authority.

"You've got to clean up your act," said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif. "Literally."

Three days before Christmas, a retention pond collapsed outside a TVA coal-burning power plant in Kingston.

TVA officials knew the pond had problems - but in 2003, rejected a $25 million overhaul.

"The most expensive solution wasn't chosen," said Kilgore. "And obviously, that looks bad for us."

The falling mountain of ash overwhelmed everything in its path - after a wall that was two-thirds of a mile across burst at the retention pond.

The federal government doesn't regulate such coast ash ponds. Neither does the state of Tennessee. The TVA has been policing itself.

In many states, it's no different.

It's estimated there are 280 wet coal ash ponds throughout America, like one outside Pittsburgh. It covers 130 acres, 30 times the size of the TVA Kingston pond.

Many of these ponds are unregulated by anyone.

In the shadow of the Tennessee plant, the Murphy family worries: will the river in their backyard ever be safe to swim again?

"I mean, we're less than a mile from the actual spill," said Jill Murphy. "How do they know what is safe?"

This cleanup could cost ten times more than the pond overhaul the TVA once rejected.

"They still took the cheap way out and it cost us our present, some of our past and a lot of our future," Flinn said.

It's a future that now includes a push for federal regulation.

"I assumed a lot that I shouldn't have assumed. Those days are over," Boxer said.

One thing's not over - the cleanup of the toxic ash. It will go on for months.

  • Mark Strassmann
    Mark Strassmann

    Mark Strassmann has been a CBS News correspondent since January 2001 and is based in the Atlanta bureau.