The Tennessee Valley Authority is not doing enough to protect the region's environment and needs more congressional oversight, the chairwoman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee said Thursday.
During a Senate hearing into the problems behind an ash spill at TVA's Kingston Steam Plant, U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., blasted TVA for pursuing the cheapest way of disposing of its coal ash in Kingston. She also took the federal utility to task for resisting an EPA order to bring its aging coal-fired coal plants up to the air quality standards for new plants.
"You've a nice man," Sen. Boxer told TVA President Tom Kilgore. "But you've got problems. You've got to clean up your act there."
Sen. Boxer questioned why TVA decided in 2006 against a $25 million plan to replace a leaking ash pond with a dry ash disposal process. Two years after that decision - and three days before Christmas - 1.1 billion gallons of potentially toxic muck spilled out of a TVA elevated wet ash pond. Up to six feet of ash containing elevated levels of arsenic, lead and other heavy metals now blankets more than 300 acres of river and lakefront properties near the Kingston plant.
"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."
Mr. Kilgore said TVA officials still are trying to determine what caused the earthen dam to rupture last month, after TVA engineers said the dredge cell could handle years of additional fly ash from the plant. For now, TVA is focused on cleaning up the mess by removing ash from area roads and properties, Mr. Kilgore said.
"I want to assure you that TVA will do a first-rate job of remediation of the problems caused by the spill," Mr. Kilgore told the Senate committee.
Mr. Kilgore said TVA will not return to the same ash disposal method in Kingston.
But Sen. Boxer and an environmental critic of TVA questioned whether the agency adequately has met its federal charter requirement to provide environmental stewardship for the Tennessee Valley.
Stephen Smith, executive director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, said TVA fought for years against an EPA order for stricter environmental controls at its coal plants and "prioritized public relations over public health" in its initial response to the ash spill.
"TVA has unleashed devastation on the very watershed and communities it was created to protect," Mr. Smith told the Senate panel. "Shortcuts have been taken, rules were waved or broken, and accountability has been absent. This was not a natural disaster; this was a manmade disaster."
TVA's senior environmental executive, Anda Ray, maintains that the fly ash widely is used in certain kinds of cement and roadbeds and is similar to much of the soil in East Tennessee, with the exception of elevated arsenic levels. But those levels are comparable to fertilized farm land, she said.
But Sen. Boxer said the higher levels of arsenic, beryllium, cadmium, chromium and lead in the Emory River after the spill prove "this isn't a harmless mud."
The committee chairwoman said she will push the incoming Obama administration to regulate coal ash through the EPA and to work to replace ash ponds with dry ash disposal.
U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and a member of the TVA Congressional Caucus that met with Roane County residents in Washington, D.C., this week, said TVA needs to clean up the mess. But he said the agency should be given credit for making progress in reducing many pollutants from its plants.
"This is a real environmental tragedy, and they need to clean it up," he said. "But I don't want that to obscure some of the things that TVA has been doing."
U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp, R-Tenn., said Congress should push to include the funds for the Kingston cleanup in the upcoming stimulus package or in other spending bills. He said that because heavy rains may have contributed to the collapse, it should be considered as a disaster eligible for federal emergency money.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.