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TVA Memo Shows Attempt to Downplay Fly Ash Spill

Jan 23, 2009 | Parker Waichman LLP

The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) has been accused by critics of downplaying the seriousness of last month's fly ash spill at it's Kingston Fossil Plant.  Now, the Associated Press is reporting that those critics may have had a point.

According to the Associated Press, a memo prepared by TVA's public relations department for a press briefing held the day after the spill was edited to call the fly ash spill a "sudden, accidental release", rather than "catastrophic".  The memo, dated Dec. 23, was accidently sent to the Associated Press, and according to the news service, was once labeled "risk assessment talking points".

The memo was also edited to remove "risk to public health and risk to the environment" as a reason for measuring water quality and the potential of an "acute threat" to fish, the Associated Press said.  Finally, a rewritten description of fly ash noted it mostly "consists of inert material not harmful to the environment," while references to "toxic metals" in the ash were moved to a section on water sampling.

Emily Reynolds, a TVA senior vice president who oversees agency communications, issued a statement to the Associated Press regarding the memo:  "From day one our priority has been to provide our stakeholders, especially Roane County residents, with accurate and timely information about the Kingston spill. TVA will continue to be open and transparent with the media and public in addressing questions and concerns ... "  The Associated Press report said Reynolds was not available for an interview.

The TVA coal ash spill occurred 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.

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