TVA Could Have Prevented Tennessee Coal Ash Disaster, Report Finds

A scathing independent report concludes that the massive coal ash spill which devastated a Tennessee town was no accident -- it was negligence.  And other waste storage facilities managed by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) could be ticking time bombs.

Recall that in the dead of night last December a "pond" filled with coal ash waste at the TVA Kingston power plant in Harriman, Tennessee burst and poured over a billion gallons of toxic coal sludge into the Emory River and the Roane County community located along its banks.  Dozens of homes were destroyed by the sludge tsunami, several people were injured (luckily no one was killed), and the town continues to suffer from the now ruined landscape that poses a hazard to the health of everyone still living there.

According to a report released yesterday by TVA's own inspector general, not only has the utility's management refused to accept blame for decisions leading to the catastrophe, but TVA officials also limited the scope of an investigation into the cause of the disaster.  The utility's independent watchdog concluded that TVA's actions were fueled by a cultural resistance to change that looked at ash as insignificant.  He also warned that a similar spill could occur at other power plants if TVA doesn't take action.

The Knoxville News-Sentinel story on this is truly Pulitzer Prize-worthy.  Although it reads like a Grisham novel, this is a real-life nightmare for the unfortunate souls whose lives have been shattered by the largest environmental disaster in U.S. history.

So, how badly did TVA err?  Based on this latest investigation, let us count the ways:

  1. TVA ignored warnings for more than two decades about the safety of the fly ash pond at its Kingston Fossil Plant and could have prevented its catastrophic collapse by addressing them. 
  2. TVA took no corrective steps in the wake of a smaller blowout of the coal ash storage pond in 2004, which rightly should have served as a wake-up call.
  3. After the December disaster, TVA put the investigation into the hands of its lawyers, who focused on the utility's legal defense strategy rather than conducting a thorough assessment of the spill's root causes and the management decisions that contributed to it.  (Not surprisingly, TVA management made a conscious decision to present to the public only facts that supported an absence of liability for the spill.)
  4. TVA never viewed handling coal ash as risky and resisted efforts to regulate it as a hazardous waste to avoid having to spend more money to upgrade its storage facilities.
  5. TVA lacked policies and procedures for ash management, poorly maintained the structures and used untrained personnel to conduct inspections. 
  6. Not only did overlapping responsibilities and a lack of communication hamper decision-making, but TVA engineers often were not even on site during construction projects.

The inspector general's report comes on the heels of another recent review that found widespread problems with the way TVA is running and maintaining its coal ash storage operations.  That earlier report concluded that the "necessary systems, controls and culture were not in place" to properly manage coal ash sites at TVA's 11 coal-fired power plants.  Among other problems, this report cited a lack of operating or maintanance procedures and failure to conduct annual training for engineers doing inspections.

With these damning investigations of the Tennessee coal ash disaster, no doubt Erin Brockovich is salivating right now.  I just hope that justice for the victims of TVA's negligence also leads to wholesale changes in the way the nation's largest public utility manages its coal waste.  The safety of millions of Americans depends on it, as evidenced by the coal ash ponds located across the country deemed highly hazardous by the EPA. And all this reinforces the simple fact that coal is not just dirty, it's dangerous.