Lessons Learned from Last Year's TVA Coal Ash Spill

Almost one year ago, an earthen dike burst at the Tennessee Valley Authority's Kingston power plant, spilling 5.4 million cubic yards -- or 1.1 billion gallons -- of toxic coal ash into the Emory River and over hundreds of acres of the downstream community of Harriman, Tennessee.  Since then the TVA has spent an estimated one million dollars per day on the cleanup, which is expected to exceed a billion dollars total.

As a result of this catastrophe -- one of the largest environmental disasters in U.S. history -- Americans discovered the dirty secret hidden at coal-fired power plants all over the country: the existence of hundreds of unregulated leaching landfills and leaking storage ponds containing contaminated coal combustion waste, the byproduct of burning coal to generate electricity.  In response, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency finally decided to address this massive pollution problem threatening countless communities.  Any day now, the EPA is expected to propose new federal regulations for coal waste pollution.  

Professor Gregory Button, with the University of Tennessee, writes about the lessons learned from the TVA Kingston disaster.  Dr. Button has been researching disasters for over three decades and is currently writing a book about the TVA ash spill titled, "When Ashes Flowed Like Water".  His article is well worth reading.

In particular, he takes the TVA to task for its inept response to the disaster, "a response so reckless it will undoubtedly be recorded in the annals of disaster history as what not to do in the wake of calamity."  He chastises TVA officials for attempting to sow confusion, minimize concerns and shirk responsibility in the wake of the crisis.  In the process, the nation's largest public utility lost all credibility.  As Dr. Button writes:

From the beginning they appeared to down play the event.  In the first early hours in the media and on their websites they referred to the disaster as an "ash slide".  Their early statements also underestimated the damage considerably by reporting that an estimated 1.8 million cubic yards of coal ash was spilled but they were later forced to issue a correction when radar analysis revealed the amount to be 5.4 cubic million yards.

Tom Kilgore, TVA CEO referred to the disaster as an "inconvenience" and TVA Senior Vice President for Environmental Policy, Anda Ray, astonishingly refused to call the spill an environmental disaster since in her mind coal waste is "inert".  Instead, she described the event as "a challenging event to restore the community back to normalcy."

The efforts to downplay the disaster continued as Tom Kilgore prematurely declared the situation as "safe". In his statement he said, "chemicals in the ash spill are of concern, but the situation is probably safe." A statement made long before there was as any scientific evidence to support such a claim. Then Gilbert Francis Jr. an agency spokesperson made a statement to the press saying that ash spill materials "do contain some heavy metals within it, but it is not toxic or anything." These statements are ironic in light of a later internal report that would criticize the TVA for having "relegated [ash] to the status of garbage at a landfill rather than treating it as a potential hazard to the public and the environment."

Dr. Button explains how these missteps "cascaded into a series of missteps" which showed that TVA either "didn't comprehend the severity of the event or was trying desperately to deny its severity."  He then proceeds to identify a series of mistakes by TVA officials, which resulted either from management ineptitude or calculated deception.  The most severe of these resulted in residents' heightened fears for their health and safety.  

TVA's reckless actions were confirmed last summer when its own inspector general released a report detailing how TVA had ignored several decades of warnings that could have prevented the tragedy from occurring.  Among a myriad of information confirming TVA's culpability, the IG's investigation found that management "circled the wagons" by presenting to the public "only facts that supported an absence of liability for TVA for the Kingston spill."

Dr. Button notes that in his experience, many lessons learned in the wake of disasters go unheeded by those responsible.  "One thing is clear," he writes, in regard to the Tennessee coal ash spill.  "The remedy to the TVA's mishandling of the disaster requires more than a restructuring of management."

He concludes:  

"[G]iven the TVA's careless response to the ash spill disaster and its poor environmental record across the board, it has become increasingly obvious that aside from a major sea change within it's organizational structure the TVA must held more accountable to the EPA and Congressional oversight and be denied its unique status as a 'federal' agency which shields it from being held more accountable." 

The Environmental Integrity Project (EIP) concurs with this view and in a new report details all the ways in which TVA has failed in its environmental responsiblities.  Along with EIP and other partners, NRDC is urging the Obama administration and Congress to take action to reform the TVA.

About the Authors

Rob Perks

Managing Director, Campaigns & External Affairs

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