TVA's ash spill liability

A federal judge reasonably decided this week that TVA is legally liable for the damages caused by the huge toxic ash spill four years ago at its Kingston power plant. The spill swamped adjacent residential properties and fouled the Clint, Emory and Tennessee rivers in the nation's biggest environmental disaster of its kind. The verdict is not surprising. What is surprising is that TVA has sought since the spill to avoid assumption of its liability, and spent well in excess of $11 million to defend its irrational defense.

The agency's own standards and procedures have long required regular, thorough examinations of the huge retention ponds - lakes would be a more fitting description - it has routinely used for decades to permanently store the toxic sludge produced by its coal-fired power plants. Leaks in the earth-berm retention lakes are a constant maintenance issue. And because they generally are close to the rivers that provide water for the generating plants, most industrially advanced nations long ago switched to dry storage of coal ash.

Since the spill and the unbelievable damage from the 5 million cubic yards of ash that it unleashed in the Kingston community, TVA has begun switching ash disposal to dry, lined landfills. In a virtual admission of their risks with wet-storage lakes, some other forward looking utilities in the United States have followed suit. The Environmental Protection Agency, however, has yet to impose dry storage mandates.

Its hesitancy reflects political pressure. Every attempt by the EPA or the Obama administration to tighten rules on toxic emissions from the dirtiest electric utilities and other big polluters results in political rebuttals by Republicans of companies' rights to pollute the environment. They rather would let the public pay for the consequences of health-damaging emissions and environmental degradation.

The Kingston spill could be considered a poster-child for pollution control. TVA's ratepayers are paying for a $1.2 billion cleanup, plus damages to the city of Kingston and its damaged property owners. The suit TVA has just lost involves more than 800 plaintiffs - mainly citizens and owners of destroyed homes and now uninhabitable land. The lesson is that stiffer regulations are yet required to safeguard citizens from environmental harm.