A Benton County couple plans to sue TVA and the company that runs the coal ash landfill after they say mercury from the ash made them sick.
Their potential lawsuit comes as TVA plans to open more coal ash landfills across the region, and as the EPA considers tough new regulations on the disposal of coal ash.
"This was painful. This was bad painful," said Jean Gibson.
Last year, Gibson started noticing red blisters all over her body.
"My whole body was like a heavy blister," said Gibson. "They kept getting worse. I'd go to the doctor; he'd look at them and say he'd never seen anything like it before."
The blisters went on for months, and then her husband started feeling sick. Both felt their worst after taking a shower.
"Something's wrong with my water," said Jean. "They finally sent somebody up here to check my water and that's when it all started."
The state tested her well, and the results were surprising. The mercury was six times above drinkable levels. In March 2009, the state shut down the Gibson's well.
"They don't want any seepage at all on the ground. That's how bad it is." said Jean's husband Lynn as he stood beside the old well.
The Gibsons are convinced they know where the mercury came from. Their house sits beside a large landfill that takes coal ash from TVA's New Johnsonville steam plant.
"I was mad. I was mad they would dump this behind our house so close, and then not tell us what might happen to us," said Jean.
Trucks bring an average of 100 tons of coal ash to the site each day. It has been open since 2002. The ash is what's left behind when the steam plant burns coal.
"Coal ash has really flown under the radar from the very beginning," said Geologist Mark Quarles.
Quarles is a groundwater expert and co-writer of a report calling for tougher federal standards for coal ash disposal.
"Most states don't have any regulation of coal ash," said Quarles.
NewsChannel5 Investigates discovered the Benton County landfill has a history of problems. In 2005, state inspectors found coal ash dumped outside the boundary of the landfill. They found another 2,000 tons of ash dumped on an unlined area of the site.
The state fined Trans-Ash, the company that runs the landfill for TVA, $160,000.
NewsChannel5 Investigates asked TVA's General Manager of Coal Combustion Product, "Do you feel Trans-Ash is a well run operation?"
"Yes. We have them at all our four sites," responded Alan Casaday.
Trans-Ash did not talk to NewsChannel 5, but the man who oversees TVA's coal waste defended the operation.
"This is a state of the art landfill," said Casaday. "We're going from a wet to a dry process, this part of that process."
After the ash spill at Kingston, TVA decided to start closing its ash ponds and open landfills. Disposal of ash in landfill is what's called dry ash storage.
"This is where we're headed to in the future to make sure it's safe," said Casaday.
Jean said she does not feel protected.
"They told us it was safe. Does this look safe?" asked Jean.
TVA insists the high level of mercury in the Gibsons' well is not from the landfill.
NewsChannel5 Investigates asked, "How would you explain the mercury in that well?"
"I would say it is part of the natural ground. Every ground material has mercury," responded Casaday.
Documents TVA filed with the federal government show TVA reported putting more than 1,200 pounds of mercury in the landfill over the last four years.
Much of that ash was put in the landfill before Trans-Ash was required to use a plastic liner that prevents water from seeping through.
TVA's own documents show water can seep through the clay liner it originally used.
Mark Quarles said there is plenty of proof the landfill contaminated the Gibsons' well and that other wells may be at risk.
"When you look at all the science it certainly points that the mercury in the ash is a really high likelihood of being in the Gibson well," said Quarles.
State representative Willie Borchert, (D) Camden, believes other wells in the area will soon be contaminated with mercury. He wants TVA to put the plastic liner under all the ash.
"That means they come in and dig it all up and fix it back right like it should be," said Rep. Borchert.
TVA said the Gibsons well is uphill from the landfill so the mercury must have come from somewhere else. The Gibsons point out the well goes 90 feet below the surface. They have hired an environmental attorney to sue Trans-Ash and TVA.
The EPA is reviewing a new set of proposed rules that could classify coal ash as a hazardous waste and would require more care in how it is disposed.
Utility companies said classifying the waste as hazardous will increase utility bills for everyone. The EPA has made no final decision.
Meanwhile, the Gibsons have safe drinking water. The EPA initiated a rare emergency action and paid to connect the Gibsons to the City of Camden's water supply.
The state continues to monitor the drinking wells of others in the area.