A new report by TVA's inspector general confirms what was blatantly apparent in the aftermath of the massive Kingston power plant ash spill: That TVA deliberately and wrongly underplayed the catastrophic dimensions and toxicity of the spill which cascaded out of a decades-old retention pond when an earthen berm ruptured.
The devastation, as aerial photography affirmed at the time, was self-evident: Some 300 acres of land and the adjacent Emory River were inundated by the flood of soggy coal ash. The raging onslaught knocked homes off their foundations and choked the river, leaving a layer of toxic ash several feet deep on land, and turning the river into a thick ash stew laden with heavy metals that would clog the Emory and send hazardous residue downstream into the nearby Clinton and Tennessee Rivers for months, if not years.
Yet TVA spokespersons insistently downplayed the size and scope of the environmental catastrophe at the time, saying the spill was smaller than it actually was, that the ash was "inert material not harmful to the environment," and that TVA would quickly restore the land and river and repair the damage.
It turned out, as TVA managers were forced over time to admit, that the spill of more than 1 billion gallons -- the largest documented toxic spill in the nation's history -- unleashed a flood of carcinogenic heavy metals and toxins that will cost around a billion dollars and take possibly three years to clean up.
TVA's inspector general specifically criticized the agency for quickly downgrading its more candid initial public response and press releases, and then making false and inconsistent claims about the hazard and scope of the spill.
His office's internal audit further castigated the agency's management for failing to have in place an emergency response plan comparable to those that TVA has long developed and practiced for nuclear plants. He said the agency's managers did not know federal rules for proper emergency response, and consequently "spoke a different language" with local emergency responders.
As a result of its mistakes, deceptions and miscues, the inspection general's audit said, the agency failed to communicate accurate and timely information to the public, botched cooperative efforts with local responders and generally caused TVA's reputation to suffer. Its inadequate preparedness planning also forced it to spend $500,000 to hire an emergency response consultant who was brought in for 19 days after the spill to upgrade the agency's public responses.
TVA eventually did improve its relations and communications with the public, but the initial confusion over how it would make reparations to area families for property and environmental damage will cost the agency, he said. "Failure to communicate the claims policy and decisions in a timely manner increased settlement expectations for some," the audit said.
The inspector general's critical review should prompt TVA's leaders to re-evaluate and sharpen its sense of candor in behalf of rebuilding public trust. It's not certain that will happen, however. The agency has a long history of oppressing whistle-blowers and putting the best, and sometimes deceptive, face on tricky cost and environmental issues when straight talk and absolute candor would be more appropriate, and far more constructive over the long term.