A week after a coal ash lagoon failed at a Tennessee Valley Authority power plant in Eastern Tennessee and covered half a square mile with more than a billion gallons of toxic sludge, authorities are finally getting around to issuing public warnings about the possible dangers presented by the poorly regulated waste.

The Roane County Joint Information Center issued a press release today recommending people avoid direct contact with the ash and keep their children and pets away from the material.

The Center — which involves the TVA and federal, state and local government agencies — says tests show that the municipal water supply for the nearby city of Kingston is safe. But it warns residents of the rural community most directly affected by the ash spill about the potential threat to their drinking water:

Water from other sources that are not normally treated, such as private drinking water wells or springs, may be contaminated if impacted by the release of the fly ash. These sources of water should not be used for drinking, cooking or bathing until they have been evaluated.

Despite the acknowledged threat to local drinking water supplies, TVA has tried to stop United Mountain Defense — an environmental activist group that was already working in the area before the ash slide occurred — from distributing water to affected families.

Chris Irwin, an attorney for the group, reports that a carload of UMD volunteers attempting to deliver water was turned away at a TVA security checkpoint and informed that the company was distributing water. But many local residents have told UMD volunteers that the company hasn't been giving them water. In fact, they met a man who became ill from drinking his well water after the ash slide, and a woman whose dogs became ill after drinking it.

"TVA is acting more like it's running a public-relations campaign than dealing with potentially the largest ecological disaster in the history of America," says Irwin, who has called for the resignation of TVA President and CEO Tom Kilgore.

At a public meeting convened last night by the nearby city of Kingston that drew more than 250 people, Roane County emergency management officials reported that three homes were completely destroyed by the ash slide while 42 property owners suffered various damages. Kilgore said his company was providing for the short-term needs of the three displaced families.

But it's not only nearby residents who are at immediate risk from the disaster: UMD volunteers report that cleanup workers do not appear to be wearing protective respiratory equipment despite the known hazards of fly ash. For example, a Material Safety Data Sheet for coal ash [pdf] calls for employees handling the material to wear NIOSH respiratory protection.

"They're treating it like snow," Irwin says. "They're not taking the most basic elementary precautions. It's like 9/11, where they had unprotected workers traipsing through toxic dust."

When Facing South called the Joint Information Center and asked who is doing the cleanup work and what protective gear they'd been provided, the person answering the phone said she would have someone look into it and call back.

Meanwhile, the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy has called on TVA to release several years' worth of test results for its coal ash so the public knows exactly what the material contains. At last night's meeting, Kilgore said his company would eventually release that information but is concentrating on cleanup at the moment.

Of course, that could take awhile, as Dave Cooper with United Mountain Defense has calculated:

If a dump truck can hold 10 cubic yards, it will take 500,000 trips to haul away all the ash (they are taking it back to the power plant). If they make one trip every 5 minutes, it will thus take 2.5 million minutes to clean up the spill — there are 525,000 minutes in a year so that means it would take 4.7 years to clean up the spill at these estimated rates.

Let's hope it doesn't take TVA that long to tell the public what was in the ash.