published Thursday, December 10th, 2009

Inspector says TVA finally on right track with ash spill

Audio clip

Tom Kilgore

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TVA'S inspector general told a congressional subcommittee Wednesday that he thinks TVA now is "marching in the right direction" nearly a year after a toxic ash spill near a coal plant.

"Our impression now is that TVA management is not just reacting to criticism to get out of a crisis, but they are committed to transforming TVA," Inspector General Richard Moore told members of the House Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment.

By his own admission, Mr. Moore likely has been been TVA's harshest critic after the Dec. 22, 2008, ash spill in Kingston, Tenn., which dumped more than 1 billion gallons of toxic-laden ash onto 300 acres of residential land and into the Emory River near the Kingston Fossil Plant.

In late July, during an investigation of the spill's root cause, Mr. Moore made public that TVA failed for more than 20 years to heed warnings that might have prevented the spill.

"The TVA culture at fossil plants relegated ash to the status of garbage at a landfill rather than treating it as a potential hazard to the public and the environment," Mr. Moore said to the same congressional subcommittee panel. "We believe this culture resulted in management failures which contributed to the Kingston spill."

On Wednesday, in the panel's fourth hearing on the spill and cleanup, TVA CEO Tom Kilgore again tried to reassure lawmakers.

"Our focus is unwavering as we work to rebuild the public trust," he said.

He told the panel that TVA is moving about 15,000 cubic yards of the spilled ash daily. About two-thirds of the ash spilled into the Emory River now has been removed and taken to a landfill in Perry County, Ala., he said.

Although work is about 1 percent behind schedule, TVA expects the "time-critical" ash will be out of the river by spring, Mr. Kilgore said. Then the agency will begin work to remove "non-time-critical" spilled ash from nearby river sloughs and land, he said.

TVA, along with the representatives from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Tennessee environmental regulators, have said the ash should be removed from the river as quickly as possible to keep spring floods from sweeping it and the toxic chemicals in it downstream.

Last summer, researchers with Appalachia State University and the Tennessee Aquarium Conservation Institute found ash in the Tennessee River about 20 miles upstream of Rhea and Meigs counties.

The congressional panel, including Reps. John J. Duncan, Jr., R-Tenn.; Lynn A. Westmoreland, R-Ga., and Parker Griffith, D-Ala., also heard testimony from the Perry County Commissioner Albert Turner, and Michael Churchman, executive director of the Alabama Environmental Council.

Dumping the ash in predominantly black Perry County is environmental racism, Mr. Churchman said.

"How can this be an air hazard in white, affluent Roane County (Tenn.) and fine in Perry County?" he asked.

But Mr. Turner said his county has gone from having no budget to a budget of $8 million a year with the ash dumping.

"In a county of 11,000 citizens, that's $1 million for every 1,000 citizens. It's unheard of," he said. "It would be economic racism if TVA and EPA stopped the flow of ash."

By the numbers

* 5.4 million cubic yards of ash spilled

* 2 million cubic yards has been removed

* 1 million cubic yards has been shipped by rail to Perry County, Ala., and landfilled

* $1 billion is the estimated cleanup cost

Source: TVA

about Pam Sohn...

Pam Sohn has been reporting or editing Chattanooga news for 25 years. A Walden’s Ridge native, she began her journalism career with a 10-year stint at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. She came to the Chattanooga Times Free Press in 1999 after working at the Chattanooga Times for 14 years. She has been a city editor, Sunday editor, wire editor, projects team leader and assistant lifestyle editor. As a reporter, she also has covered the police, ...

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