1-10-2009: Report from Widows Creek

Day two of our work at Widows Creek yielded more samples, photographs, and confrontations with security. James and I arrived in Stevenson, AL around 2:30pm and, remembering our paths from yesterday, took a labyrinth of back roads to bypass police blockades. A security truck followed us for a couple of miles as we drove straight to the private drive leading to our new friend’s house, on private land bordered by Widows Creek and TVA property.

The area was crawling with security vehicles, patrol boats, and helicopters. We were met by the owner’s brother-in-law, who had just returned from an unsuccessful hunting trip in the nearby woods. He said a helicopter had followed him as he walked and had hovered directly overhead, dangerously close to the treetops, watching him for several minutes as deer and all other wildlife quickly abandoned the area. They seemed suspicious of him despite his obvious hunting outfit, with a bright orange cap and rifle.

“I wish they would just leave us alone,” he sighed. Pointing toward the two guards stationed on a ridge overlooking his land, the owner joked, “I motioned for those police to come down here for a closer look, but I guess they didn’t want to.”

His brother-in-law chimed in, “I should get my binoculars out and watch them the same way they’re watching us.”

By 3:30 we were geared up and trudging through the mud behind a horse pasture to get water samples from a pond between the house and the TVA embankment that is closer to the dam but not in the direct flow of the creek. The horses we curious about us but were clearly disturbed by the constant pump truck and overhead helicopter noises. This cacophony was consistent from the time we arrived until the time we left.

Our next stop was in Widows Creek, much farther upstream than yesterday’s expedition, about 300 yards from the dam. James took six samples from three different points in the creek, about 20 feet from the bank. He saw a thick, gritty coating of grayish slime on the surface of the water as well as adhering to the trees. The slime stretched out in a band, coating everything within 70 feet of the channel. He took some photographs of this while I remained at the tree line and captured video of patrol boats and helicopters zooming around, amidst the sounds of water pumps, dump trucks, and other heavy machinery.

We thanked our helpful friend for the use of his property and showed him the photographs of the slime. He said he didn’t expect us to find any heavy metals in the water samples, but is curious to find out about the composition of the contaminants.
On our way out, we were flagged down by the two police officers who had been watching us as we worked in the horse pond. We were questioned, asked for identification, and given a verbal warning for their “reason to believe” that we had trespassed on TVA land. One officer was courteous but the other grew belligerent, threatened to arrest us, and refused to give his name or badge number. As he stormed away from our car after copying the tag information, the first officer said, “Look, we’re concerned about the spill and the environment too, but you have to understand we’re just doing our jobs. I won’t argue with you over whether coal is the best way to get energy, but you have to stay out of TVA property.”

It sounds like someone has been doing their homework on which organization is conducting independent water tests at TVA disaster sites.

Yesterday’s and today’s samples are on ice, labeled, documented, and ready to be sent to the lab. Results will be released as soon as possible. Our photographs are already up and video is on its way.

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