Senators Grill TVA Chief Over Coal Ash Cleanup

WASHINGTON DC, January 8, 2009 (ENS) – The head of the Tennessee Valley Authority today pledged the federal electric utility would do a “first-rate job” cleaning up the mess left from last month’s massive coal ash spill. But at a Congressional committee hearing to examine the spill he faced sharp criticism from senators unconvinced by his promises.

“You need to have a plan to clean this spill up and you don’t have it yet,” said Senator Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat and chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, which conducted the hearing. “People will never feel safe there again.”

Residents of Harriman, Tennessee were in attendance at the hearing – the first to examine the December 22 spill at TVA’s Kingston Fossil Plant, located at the confluence of the Emory and Clinch Rivers in eastern Tennessee.

The spill devastated the area when a retaining wall holding back a 60 foot-high pile of wet coal ash gave way, sending a billion gallons of toxic sludge and contaminated water across 400 acres.

One of the houses damaged by the coal ash spill. (Photo courtesy TVA)

Twelve homes and other buildings were buried in more than four feet of sludge, a rail line was displaced and the Emory River was contaminated.

Federal and private analyses have found elevated levels of an array of heavy metals in the water, including arsenic at more than 149 times the maximum allowable levels in one sample.

TVA President and CEO Tom Kilgore testified that the utility is committed to completely remediating the contaminated area and will work to compensate affected residents.

“We’ll start with the people first and the environment comes right after that,” Kilgore said. “We are working 24 hours a day, seven days a week on cleaning this up.”

“It is only in our best interests to do this right,” he said. Kilgore explained that the main thrust of the cleanup effort is to construct barriers to keep the sludge from moving into the river and to begin moving the contaminated material back onto TVA’s property.

To minimize dust and erosion, TVA is spreading grass seed and fertilizer, as well as a liquid dust suppressant on the ashy sludge. The seeding is an immediate, short-term solution and will not be left in place long term, aa TVA plans to recover all the material possible.

TVA President and CEO Tom Kilgore (Photo courtesy TVA)

“Now that we have entered the recovery phase, we are turning our attention to a long-term plan for full recovery and restoration,” Kilgore said. “I cannot tell you at this point how long this might take.”

Boxer said TVA should be doing more than it currently is doing to clean up the area. “This isn’t a harmless mud,” she said. “Seeding the ground with grass is not a permanent solution. Cleanup can be done right or it can be a ticking timebomb.”

The California Democrat pressed Kilgore on TVA’s lack of a plan to deal with two river coves popular with residents.

“We want to recover all that we can recover,” Kilgore said. While TVA does not have plans to clean up the coves, the utility doesn’t have “plans not to,” he said.

“That’s not an answer,” Boxer responded. “That’s not cleanup.”

Boxer also questioned Kilgore about reports that TVA had been warned of the potential failure of the impoundment wall at least twice in the past five years, but balked at a $25 million project to secure the site.

“You went with the cheapest fix, and now you have the most expensive problem,” Boxer said. “The cost of that $25 million is going to seem like pennies compared to what it is going to cost to clean this up.”

Early estimates of cleanup costs are as high as $250 million.

Kilgore defended the utility and cautioned against drawing conclusions before the investigation of the spill is complete. TVA has suggested the retaining wall broke because of heavy rains and cold weather.

“We had no reason to believe it wouldn’t hold,” Kilgore said. “I don’t know what caused this but I don’t think it’s something that betrays the public’s trust in that we were careless.”

This aerial view of the ash spill shows one of two weirs newly built to contain the ash while the Emory River is dredged. (Photo courtesy TVA)

He told the panel it appears that the areas subject to earlier warnings were not the same part of the retaining wall that ruptured. “We had outside experts help us with those fixes – the most expensive solution was not chosen and obviously that looks bad for us,” he said. “I would like to get the failure investigation complete to know exactly what the cause was.”

Boxer said the spill highlights the need for federal regulations to govern the disposal of toxic coal ash, noting that state regulatory efforts have been inconsistent at best.

“The federal government has the power to regulate these wastes, and inaction has allowed this enormous volume of toxic material to go largely unregulated,” she said.

Coal-fired power plants across the country produce some 130 million tons of ash every year. Although some of the ash is recycled into industrial building materials, much of it is either stored in dry landfills or wet lagoons like the one at the Kingston plant.

Amphibious trackhoes are being used to assist in road and rail clearing near the TVA Kingston Fossil Plant. (Photo courtesy TVA)

More than a thousand similar coal ash ponds exist at utilities across the country. A report released Wednesday by environmentalists warned that nearly 100 of them pose a similar or even greater potential danger than the Kingston site.

Boxer said she would press the Obama administration to enact federal rules governing coal ash storage and would question the president-elect’s nominee to head the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Lisa Jackson, about the issue at her confirmation hearing next week.

“It is critically important that protective standards for coal ash waste be established,” Boxer said. “The EPA doesn’t even need any legislation from us. They have the ability to regulate this and I see it is coming. I hope it is coming.”

Kilgore refrained from endorsing or opposing such a move, saying that TVA “looks forward to following the lead of EPA and Congress to make sure something like this doesn’t happen again.”

Tennessee Republican Senator Lamar Alexander urged his colleagues and TVA to take a long-term view. “We need to turn a short-term regulatory and management failure into a long-term technology development solution,” he said. “We need a series of mini-Manhattan projects on how we can safely and securely use coal.”

Almost 93 percent of all coal consumed in the United States is burned to generate electricity, according to the federal Energy Information Agency.

By J.R. Pegg

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