Passion and Power in Bull Run

Julie Bledsoe never thought she’d be an activist. But that was before her beloved husband Ron and his two brothers fell ill after being denied respirators and Tyvek suits while cleaning up the Kingston coal ash spill. Then, Julie’s fearsome passion wouldn’t be silenced. She spoke out powerfully -and wrenchingly -for Ron and his fellow cleanup workers, of whom over 400 are sick and 44 have died at press time. She and others demanded TVA and its cleanup contractor Jacobs “you can eat a pound a day” Engineering accept responsibility for their suffering employees.

When Julie and her fellow victims spoke out, their champion, award-winning reporter Jamie Satterfield of KnoxNews/USA Today TN, along with Ben Pounds of The Oak Ridger and others, broadcast their pleas for help and their warnings on coal ash at two TVA Open Houses, at a TVA Board Meeting, at a Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC) hearing, at an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Coal Ash Rule hearing in Arlington, VA -and at our four ever more rousing Bull Run Community Meetings organized by SOCM, Sierra Club, Beyond Coal, Appalachian Voices, and now community volunteers, and led by SOCM organizer Adam Hughes.

At our Bull Run Community Meetings the Bledsoes, their fellow Kingston victims Janie and Ansol Clark, and other coal ash survivors living near Bull Run joined a uniquely potent and determined coalition unified behind demanding TVA do right by its neighbors. Other contingents include:

  • Scientists and engineers from ORNL, some of them experts in groundwater contamination and other coal ash concerns;
  • Nearby residents who lived under a constant rain of carcinogenic, pre-scrubber fly ash, some of whom had their homes taken for TVA’s very unpopular proposed new coal ash landfill;
  • Environmental activists and organizations;
  • Current Bull Run and Kingston workers;
  • And, effectively advocating for them all, their elected and appointed government officials.

Jamie Satterfield says she never saw such a powerful movement in Kingston.

As our voices rise together, we know TVA hears us loud and clear. CEO Jeff Lyash is reaching out, if so far only with words, to the Kingston survivors and to the wider community. But rebuilding trust will take much more than words. We’re wise to the toxic threats from Bull Run’s current and proposed dry fly ash landfills and its remaining wet fly ash pond -now jutting into the lovely reservoir from which Anderson County and much of Knoxville drinks. The community wants all of TVA’s coal ash gone -and “stop making more of it,” as Mac Post put it.

Many, like Julie Bledsoe, also want TVA to more urgently address the elephant in the room, the tragically politicized but scientifically undeniable climate crisis. That requires rapidly shifting to carbon-free energy and storage -and shutting down not just CO2-intensive coal plants like Bull Run but the natural gas plants TVA wants to replace them with. Welcome to Oak Ridge, home to the Climate Change Science Institute and the world’s-fastest Summit supercomputer, which now runs frighteningly localized climate projections.

For our Fourth Bull Run Community Meeting on Monday, October 21, in Claxton, which would feature the twelfth and final presentation of Appalachian Voices’ Tennessee Valley Energy Democracy Tour, about forty of us turned out for a passionate, energized discussion of what we want from TVA. I asked what we wanted from TVA’s own new “Bull Run Community Action Group” (CAG), in which I and others present were members. I got so many answers I worried we’d never get to the Tour. We then prepped for the following Thursday’s TDEC Aquatic Resource Alteration Permit (ARAP) Hearing on TVA’s permit to divert Worthington Branch for a new coal ash landfill. Since TVA’s actual landfill permit is pending approval of the ARAP, the hearing and the now-closed comment period would likely be our last chance to keep the landfill out of our community.

We then did the Energy Democracy Tour’s power mapping exercise and discussed how best to influence groups with power to influence TVA policy. “Re-envisioning public power in the Tennessee Valley” reports the Tour’s results.

Three days later, we brought all that power and passion to the ARAP Hearing. When TDEC Regional Director John LeCroy invited us to individually question the many TVA staff on hand, for the first time anyone could recall, a chorus insisted we all hear the questions and answers -and John graciously consented. But he had a tough time confining the questions to the water permit itself; it was the landfill itself we wanted to block. It was too close to homes. And TVA had not established the need for the landfill, and thus for the ARAP permit. We were all encouraged to comment on the ARAP application before the November 3 deadline.

Sierra Club soon created an ARAP Action Alert for commenting. 183 of you commented, often adding your own comments to the alert’s comment. Others of you submitted detailed technical comments. Thank you!

At our second TVA Bull Run CAG meeting on December 5, TVA and TDEC’s top coal ash officials seriously addressed our community’s toughest questions -giving me hope they’ll also seriously address our needs. And the tour I’d requested of Bull Run in full operation will be on January 11.

What happens now is history you get to help make.

Will you support our work in Bull Run?