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Former Regulator Said TVA Could Have Prevented Coal Ash Spill

Jan 7, 2009 | Parker Waichman LLP A former federal regulator claims the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) ignored two leaks at its Kingston Fossil Plant's fly ash retention pond that could have been a warning of the disaster to come.  Retired engineer Jack Spadaro told the Associated Press that the leaks, which occurred in 2003 and 2006, were an indication of a serious stability problem with the pond's retention walls.

Those stability problems may have led to the December 22 breach that sent a billion gallons of potentially toxic coal ash into neighborhoods around the Eastern Tennessee TVA plant.  The TVA has said that at least 300 acres of land had been coated by the sludge, making it  larger than the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska. The authority now says that  5.4 million cubic yards of potentially toxic fly ash was released from a retention pond. According to the Knoxville News, that’s triple the estimate of  1.7 million cubic yards the TVA first released. The fly ash spill damaged  15 homes. All the residents were  evacuated, but at least three homes were deemed uninhabitable.

According to the Associated Press, a  2008 inspection report said the TVA stopped dredging operations in a main pond after the 2003 leak, but continued using a smaller temporary pond while repairs were made. TVA resumed dredging in 2006, only to find ash seeping out of the dike just nine months later.  The authority then installed a system to relieve pressure on the walls.

Glen Pugh, program director for Tennessee's division of solid waste management, the state agency charged with regulating coal ash ponds, told the Associated Press that his agency was "focused on the effect on the environment".  Pugh said nothing in the TVA's inspection reports led to concerns about the retaining wall's structural integrity.

But Spadaro, who directed the National Mine Health and Safety Administration's training academy, told the Associated Press that VA's last inspection report indicated the agency was irresponsible for failing to see these previous failures as an indication of a serious stability problem.  According to the Associated Press, Spadaro is all-too familiar with coal ash spills -  he investigated a similar disaster in 197 that killed 125 people in West Virginia.

Spadaro told the Associated Press that after the leaks were discovered, the TVA should have drained the pond and rebuilt the dam, rather than attempt repairs.

Spadaro also said that the TVA spill shows that states are not doing enough to regulate coal ash, and the federal government should take on the job.  Right now, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) doesn't regulate the waste because it isn't considered a hazard.  But coal ash can contain heavy metals and other toxins.  In fact, it is known  that the waste that spilled from the TVA pond contained dangerous substances, including arsenic.

Unregulated coal ash ponds pose a danger in many states, according to report in The New York Times.  There are currently around 1,300 unregulated coal ash ponds across the U.S., the Times said.  Numerous studies have shown that the ash can leach toxic substances that can cause cancer, birth defects and other health problems in humans, and can decimate wildlife populations around the dumps.

According to the Times, a  2007 EPA report identified 63 sites in 26 states where the water was contaminated by heavy metals from such dumps, including three other TVA sites.   Environmental advocacy groups have said that at least 17 additional sites should be added to that list.

The EPA has been studying the issue for 28 years, and regulation has largely been up to the states.  Sadly, as the TVA spill illustrates, states often aren't up to the job.  

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