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TVA Fly Ash Spill Subject of Senate Hearing on Thursday

Jan 6, 2009 | Parker Waichman LLP

A Senate committee will look into last month's Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA)  fly ash spill at a hearing scheduled for Thursday.  According to a report on Bloomberg.com, the hearing before the  Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works will focus on whether more federal oversight of coal waste storage sites is needed.

The Tennessee fly ash spill occurred  around 1:00 a.m. on December 22 after  a wall holding back 80 acres of sludge from the TVA’s facility in Roane County, Tennessee broke.  Though the exact cause of the accident was not known, it was thought that six inches of rain over the previous 10 days and overnight temperatures in the teens contributed to the dam breach.

The TVA 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 Bloomberg.com, TVA CEO Tom Kilgore will be among the witnesses who testify at Thursday's Senate hearing.  Since the spill some have voiced concerns that the TVA was able to avoid closer oversight prior to the catastrophe because it got deferential treatment from both federal and state regulators, Bloomberg said.

According to the Bloomberg report, The TVA provides power to industry and about 9 million people in the river valley that runs from southern Virginia to northern Mississippi.  The federally owned company receives no government funds and isn’t publicly traded, although it sells bonds.  Tennessee Governor Phil Bredesen, a Democrat, said last week that the TVA may have been given too much leeway because it is federally owned, Bloomberg reported.

Since the spill, calls for change in the way coal wastes are regulated have come from several quarters.  According to Businessweek.com, Tennessee Senator Bob Corker, a Republican, said the spill should be a "wake-up call" for greater environmental and regulatory oversight.

Businessweek.com also said that Bredesen has promised to review state regulatory practices and the federal Environmental Protection Agency has suggested taking on greater oversight of  coal waste piles.  And according to Bloomberg.com, Representative Nick Rahall, the West Virginia Democrat who heads the House Natural Resources Committee, may offer legislation mandating that coal-ash storage sites meet federal standards similar to those already in place for storing waste from coal-mining.


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