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TVA Gets an Earful at Senate Hearing

Jan 12, 2009 | Parker Waichman LLP, LLP

Late last week, the head of a Senate committee blasted the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) for its failures related to last month's fly ash spill in Kingston, TN.  Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., head of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, charged the TVA with trying to dispose coal wastes in the cheapest possible manner at the expense of the environment.  

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 Kingston Fossil Plant 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 the Associated Press, at last Thursday's hearing, Sen. Boxer questioned why the TVA decided in 2006 against a $25 million plan to replace a leaking ash pond with a dry ash disposal process.  "The cost of that $25 million is going to seem like pennies compared to what it is going to cost to clean this mess up," Sen. Boxer told TVA officials. "You didn't pick the right fix."

TVA CEO Tom Kilgore tried to reassure Boxer and other members of the panel that it will not use the same ash disposal method in Kingston once the spill is cleaned up.

Boxer also took issue with the TVA's assertion that the sludge spilled from  the Kingston retention pond posed no threat to public health, the Associated Press said.  She said  higher levels of arsenic, beryllium, cadmium, chromium and lead in the Emory River after the spill prove the sludge "isn't a harmless mud."

According to the Associated Press, Boxer said she would work with the incoming Presidential administration to regulate coal ash through the Environmental Protection Administration (EPA).  Right now, the EPA doesn’t regulate the waste because it isn’t considered a hazard.  But coal ash can contain heavy metals and other toxins, as the TVA spill proved.  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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