Jan 14 2009
08:49 am

I just read the eloquently written but very disappointing Huffington Post by Erin Brockovich. I'm afraid she indulges in exaggeration to the point of misinformation. I'm being swayed over to RandMart's view of her.

She incorrectly states that this corner of Roane County is "Off the Beaten Path". Well let's overlook the fact that there are four I40 interchanges within three miles of the site and the fact that one of the largest shopping centers in Tennessee is within 20 minutes, and let's look at just a few of her factual errors. Here's an excerpt:

The "after" picture is nothing but a sludge-filled lake, dead fish and miles and miles of contamination flowing out of control. And what cannot be captured by photographs is the human toll of this disaster. The child who wakes up nightly with nightmares; the woman whose cough is so severe she can hardly speak and has been diagnosed with acute asthma from the ash spill; the tri-athlete who can no longer train in his environs; the families scared to death to go outside for fear they breathe in the toxic ash in the air; people realizing that TVA's recommendation to boil their water before drinking it in the wake of the disaster was a false comfort and bottled water, at their own expense, is the only solution for drinking;

Where to start? Yes, we have a big danged mess in less than a mile square area of a 61 square mile lake...Less than 0.8% of the lake. The floating gray stuff is little bubbles of silicates...Glass if you will. It's ugly but is being vacuumed up by hordes of orange life-jacketed workers.

Our drinking water has been tested by a staggering number of laboratories and not one single problem has been found...Not One! In all but a couple of the hundreds of samplings of the lake itself taken below the confluence of the Emory and the Clinch the lake water meets drinking water standards even before it goes through the treatment plants. More obvious is the outright lie that anyone has to pay for their own drinking water. People were frightened into buying bottled water even when their water came from the water system located many miles upstream of the spill site. Even so, TVA has and still will pay for water to be delivered and will pay for testing for anyone who requests it.

The families who are scared to death are mostly scared to death by erroneous reports by some environmental groups who, though they mean well and are working their hearts out, reported that the dirt and dust from the heavy truck traffic was Coal Ash...It wasn't. People were frightened into hysteria, coughing, throwing up, and other reactions to near panic, when what they were reacting to did not even exist. it's the exact same stuff that lies out there on my gravel driveway that I paid good money to have hauled in and spread out...Crusher run quarry gravel. No Coal Ash is being hauled by any of those trucks. It is all quarry material used in rebuilding the road and the weirs needed to contain the ash in the Emory and the cove.

The claim that TVA said for everyone too boil their drinking water is simple not true. It has been repeated like a high school hallway rumor, and I would expect the spokes person for a high priced Washington law firm to get her facts correct rather than expose herself to a loss of credibility. Here's where that nonsense came from: In the aftermath of the spill, TVA equipment was immediately working to clear the portion of the road along TVA property. An excavator cut through the waterline serving homes along that stretch of road. It was temporarily patched and the "boil" recommendation was issued for those homes and those homes only, not because of ash contamination, but because that is the standard procedure for the situation anytime a waterline is breached.

The nightmares that these poor people are experiencing are most likely due to the hysteria that people like Brockovich are whipping up to serve their own purposes. I'm sure that on some level she means well, but she's not helping us fix this mess.

The Attorney that stood up and pointed out that Ms. Brockovich and her attorneys were violating ethics laws was exactly correct, according to my attorneys. Ms. Brockovich has a history of bailing out on folks when it appears that the punitive damages won't be highly lucrative so let's just watch and see what happens here, since there is nobody to punish y monetary damages. The people at fault are the members of the TVA board and they are specifically protected by an act of Congress.

Now look, TVA has messed up big time. By their actions and in-actions, Roane County has been greatly harmed, but screaming hysteria is not what we need. We need a rational examination of the true hazards and risks, and a systematic plan to reclaim what can be reclaimed, and make whole those who have directly and indirectly suffered. That includes a whole bunch of us, including me. But everything I've seen so far indicates to me that TVA is making a totally good faith effort and they are being honest. Not once has anyone I've talked to said, "I can't give you that information." They have said, "We don't know yet," and I understand and accept that answer.

I'm not happy with the situation, but the situation IS the situation. Let's look at the science and the engineering and the needs of our citizens, both in the immediate moment, and the future. What we need is clear and rational thinking, not the fear driven emotional reactions that articles like Ms. Brockovich's. Her motives must certainly be questioned and watched, just as closely as we must question and watch TVA.

I have many criticisms of TVA actions, both before and after the spill. i will never forgive the lax environmental efforts and the disregard for our safety and quality of life that led to our present situation... But I do think that TVA as a whole has and is working in good faith and doing the best they can to make us whole. It simply isn't going to happen overnight.

Roane County is a sick patient, gravely in need of a medical procedure. At this point in time we are being made as comfortable as possible while the doctors start our treatment. There will be a recovery period, just like in any operation, whether it involves a scalpel or 200 pieces of heavy equipment, and it is going to be longer than we want.

Our problem is that there is no anesthesia for us. We'll be awake through the whole operation. It's going to hurt, but I believe we'll be better off than we have been for fifty years, once we have recovered.

Note to Mike Farmer...Roane County is not 20% water

Roane County Area
- Total 395 sq mi (1,023 km²)
- Land 361 sq mi (935 km²)
- Water 34 sq mi (88 km²), 8.61%

The main portion of Watts Bar Lake is a little over 50 miles long. Including the navigable tributaries, the references show 74 miles of commerce navigable waterways. I think that is way too low, actually, if you count the Clinch up the the Industrial park and the Tennessee River up to the dam in Loudon. The Emory is normally navigable up to Harriman but that's closed right now.


The County Executive's information regarding 22% of Roane County being rivers/lake was taken from the latest Roane County land use plan. Where did you get your information? I'm sure Mike wants to be correct on the issue.

Fresh numbers

WhitesCreek's numbers on water look low and Mike Farmer's look about right.

I just ran an RGB-color-counting map analysis program I wrote for a West Roane County VFD grant application last year on a terrain map of Roane County I made by combining a state R.C. map (for the boundaries) with a terrain map from Google. (U.S.G.S. maps online were down this afternoon.) The water was a kind of blue on the map.

There were some small built-in errors with this type of rough count--for example, there were tiny letters and some bridges on top of bits of the water--but the answer should be very close.

There were 875,520 pixels in the map, of which 568,165 were outside Roane County, leaving RC with 307,355 pixels, of which 71,767 were close to the shades of blue used for water by Google, yielding a rough count of 71767/307355 = about 23% water.

If one is less liberal in matching colors to the Google water blues, a more conservative count of 60,637 water pixels then yields 60637/307355 = about 20%.

These counts of 20-23% are likely to be close to correct. Of course, this is just a quick run.

If you saw my first try at this post the numbers were different because I had not yet subtracted the background color (outside Roane County).

More exact analysis takes time. If you want a more exact percentage, let's talk.

-- OneTahiti

From several places but here...Look at the map


Even visually, don't you think that far less than a Fifth of Roane County is under water?

We have a lot, though. It's a small point, unrelated to the discussion.

The money quote is from the US Census Bureau:




See "Fresh numbers" above.

-- OneTahiti

I'll be interested in seeing more

But in order to be over 20%, we would need a combined body of water to equal a 74 mile lake one mile wide. I can't get there.

Fresher Numbers / I agree, WC

The 20% does look high. I considered the possibility that Google terrain maps have hidden watery blues sprinkled throughout the supposed land. To do a rough test of this, I reduced the colors to 16--inexact, I know, but I wanted to smooth out any hidden color richness that might have skewed the previous results--and ran the test again. This time the water % was = 24,004 water pixels/ ((960 * 912)total pixels - 568,229 background pixels) = about 8%.

What this tells me is that a proper, time-consuming :( analysis with a pure color, hand-checked map is needed. If two sets of numbers are floating around out there, they may be the result of map coloring artifacts.

I too don't visually see the 20%.

Does this number make enough of a planning difference to warrant the time and trouble of a painstakingly exact result?

-- OneTahiti

Files for WC

Here is the non-color-limited (straight from Google terrain, masked by county boundary from TDOT) map I used for color counting: (link...).

Here is the Excel .csv file of color counts for the above file: (link...). Column B holds the counts for each color, and columns C, D, and E are the RGB values respectively. If I remember correctly, water was counted as all pixels in the color range (149-160,175-186,197-211) for the "conservative" count that yielded about 20%.

Here is the reduced-color (16 colors) map I used as a check: (link...).

Here is the Excel .csv file of color counts for the above file: (link...). Again, Column B holds the counts for each color, and columns C, D, and E are the RGB values respectively. The water is (157,179,201). The background (outside Roane County) is (223,52,231).

Tools used: Excel, Photoshop, and (with proper setup) the following PHP program: (link...)

Have at it, folks! :)

-- OneTahiti

I think I see the variance...

The figures vary between average pond and flood plain. At 100 year flood, 22% of Roane County IS under water. This equates to the part of my Headwaters House lawn that I mow diligently at normal levels but once in the last 10 years that I've owned it, the carp were playing sex games within ten feet of the foundation line. The USGS figure is correct 99% of the time, and that's the 8.9% number.

I wouldn't bet the farm on this analysis, but there's just no way that Roane County is 22% underwater in normal years.

If you stop to think that

If you stop to think that there are rivers and streams that go to the Morgan County border on hwy 27 north (Little Emory River)and the Morgan County border (Emory River) on "Old hwy 29A (Oakdale Hwy), then White's Creek, Johnson Valley area,and all the other smaller creeks and streams in this area, added to the Clinch and Tennessee Rivers and all the embayment areas in between, I can see where 22% or even more of our county is covered by water, flood stage or otherwise.

Farmer didn't say that the 22% covered only the navigable channels.

the lake water meets

Great response.

One minor point.

the lake water meets drinking water standards even before it goes through the treatment plants

I presume the testing is for heavy metals and other such toxins. I doubt they are testing for bacteria or other microorganisms. I wouldn't drink any water straight out of any TVA reservoir, especially not any on the Tennessee River.

Water is routinely tested

Water is routinely tested for bacteria both pre and post treatment. I would think only an unwise person would drink straight from the lake. When I moved to the Kingston area in the mid-70's I took my girls to the city park to swim. That was the first and last time!!! My daughter's white bathing suit was a dingy brown when she finished swimming. My point is the untreated water is not suitable for consumption, and hasn't been for a long time.
Granted this is a mess, but some of the water quality problems were present before the "big spill".

Actually, except for times

Actually, except for times when really heavy rains produce turbidity, the main channel of the lake usually meets ALL drinking water standards and has for years. There are problems in some of the coves.

Frankly I was surprised when I learned this some time back. Many of the older homes on the lake got their water from pipes they had extended out away from shore. This has only changed in the last few years as municipal water lines have been extended to pick these folks up. Some of them told me they preferred the lake water. Go figure.

OK, then. You go first!

OK, then. You go first!

Been there done that...Not on purpose though

I have swallowed water from nearly every body of water in East Tennessee as my paddling skills deteriorate, but your point is well taken. I remember the science experiment that showed that water from most toilet bowls was clean, too. Pupster is welcome to it.

And back to the original

And back to the original point, you are correct that by all accounts her characterizations of the water supply up there are way off base.

How can the lake water meet...

drinking water standards when test results from App. State show up to 300x arsenic levels, and virtually every other heavy metal 2x to 10x legal permissable levels. I need some education.

Also, I thought the panel on TV6 brought up some good points regarding what the future holds regarding lake contamination. One of the panelist stated that dredging the river would release the ash contaminants and other heavy metals that were already in the silt bed. The weir will not stop 100% migration into the Clinch. Another topic of concern the ash spill in Lower Bethel Township, PA that occurred in 2005 is still being cleaned up 4 years later. This spill was 1/5 of our spill. The effects of the PA spill have been well documented the most frightening of which is the PA State Gov and utility provider fighting the residents as well as science with respect to the remediation effort....4 years later.

Is it just me or is TVA being very guarded and protective with their verbal responses in these forums. I see that as a red flag. It looked to me like the TVA reps were strapped in an electric chair and were very well coached as to what to say.

Hey, C-man -

Now that you and me are past arguing with each other :-) Hopefully I can shed some helpful light on that...

Your question is a perfectly valid one.

First let me say I work in the medical profession, and I have to deal with test results and how to interpret them. I also have to deal with the myriad ways scientific studies can be done and how they can be interpreted. I ain't the be-all and end-all of how to do this, but I ain't ignernt either.

I read some of the App State results, and they specified some of their methodology. The pre-treatment lake water they analyzed was analyzed using a different methodology, and they analyzed for all sorts of undissolved (particulate, I assume, since that's what would be undissolved) water content rather than dissolved content. In other words, they got stuff that would settle out of the lake water if allowed to do so. It was part of the turbidity. That would make their results show certain things at higher levels. And they got it, as I understand, at some of the moments when turbidity was at its highest levels, levels that do not exist except for relatively brief periods of time, after being stirred up by rains or other forms of agitation. I think in essence, although their results are scientifically accurate, the difference is one of context. So their results while technically accurate, are sort of an apples to oranges comparison.

I hope I didn't make that too convoluted. Did it help any?

I'll try to do better if I confused you. I sure didn't MEAN to.


it's pretty simple...

UMD had one sample of water taken inside the spill area that showed the elevated result. Of course it did. No one disputes that. But it's not appropriate to make statements that imply that this was drinking water by comparing it to drinking water when it wasn't drinking water. RB's info on including particulate in the test got by me the first time but it would seem to render the Appy State results even more inappropriate.

There has not been a single instance where a TVA Test, TDEC test, Appy State test, or any other independant lab test contradicted each other. In fact, of the labs, the Appy State data showed a Non-detect on a contaminant shown to be there by other labs. This doesn't mean a thing, except that there are sampling errors to be factored in and more than one sample should be tested before any determination is made. TVA has posted their sampling spots and are resampling and testing at the same spots.

Very good point, WC...

.. in that validity is very much lent to a process where different labs produce essentiallly the same results using same techniques over and over again with many serial samples. This means results that you can take to the bank - or that you can drink/cook with. In these cases, consistency is our friend.


I got two words for you, WC, after this piece...

Well done.

Now I recant my two word description...

Thank you, as well. I think you have put Ms Brockovich's non-altrusitic trip to our county into fair perspective. I surmised as much from the beginning. Your critical approach to analyzing what she said and how she acts verifies this to me that I wasn't off base.

PLEASE don't misunderstand me as taking an opportunity to say "I told you so!" That is NOT what I mean at all. What I am TRYING to say is that I'm gratified that another set of eyes, another brain, has considered this and come up to essentially the same conclusions. Randmart hit the nail on the head, too. I guess if all 3 of us are seeing this essentially the same way, we are most likely right.

Incidentally, I have seen/heard a lot of Roane Countians voicing the same.


Thank you, WC

I certainly didn't win the "most popular question asker" award last weekend, but I thought my question to the attorney with Ms. Brokovich was one worth asking. I am still looking for a video of the Erin Brokovich/Weitz & Lutzenberg presentation, if anyone has it.

RL, I thank YOU, too

Popular or not, what you did needed to be done. Hats off to you, sir!


Discovery Channel

The Huffington post article was trash and loaded with misinformation. The only good thing about it was the fact that it may serve to make more people aware. Interestingly, in my business, I talk daily with reasonably well informed management level people all over the country and have been amazed at how few have heard much, if anything at all, about this. I guess the upside to that would be less damage to our image.

Last night while watching a program on the Discovery Channel up popped Erin Brokovich going a commercial encouraging mesothelioma (asbestos)victims and others to contact the law firm of Weitz & Luxenberg. The only thing lacking was an ambulance with siren and flashing lights.

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