Environmental group sues TVA over support for industry group

Staff Photo by Robin Rudd / The Tennessee Valley Authority logo adorns their offices in downtown Chattanooga on May 7, 2019.

An environmental group opposed to Trump administration plans to ease proposed regulations of coal ash is suing the Tennessee Valley Authority for not disclosing records about TVA support for an industry group fighting stricter controls on coal combustion products.

The Energy and Policy Institute filed a lawsuit this week in federal court in Knoxville, claiming TVA is violating the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) by not releasing records regarding TVA's support for the Utility Air Regulatory Group (UARG) and the Utility Solid Waste Activities Group (USWAG), which has fought stricter EPA rules on coal pollution.

In previous Congressional testimony, TVA said it has been a member of UARG since 1987 and contributed $7.3 million to the industry lobbying group since August 2001 before the group was disbanded in May. TVA spokesman Jim Hopson said this spring that UARG helped TVA understand and comply with Clean Air Act regulations, but he said the federal utility "does not participate in or fund any UARG litigation of lobbying."

In response to a FOIA request about TVA records related to the UARG, TVA's FOIA officer, Denise Smith, said the federal open records law "protects confidential commercial and financial information the release of which is likely to cause substantial competitive harm to the person or company who submitted it."

The Utility Air Regulatory Group was an association of power generating companies and national trade associations coordinated through the law firm Hunton Andrews Kurth that lobbied and sued federal agencies over regulatory policies regarding utility coal power plants. Earlier this year, a Congressional committee questioned how EPA adopted rules similar to those written by the Utility Air Regulatory Group, which used two attorneys in the past who now work at EPA.

Last month, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler announced plans to weaken two Obama-era rules about coal ash disposal and storage to reduce "heavy burdens on electricity producers across the country," including TVA where a 2008 coal ash spill at the Kingston Fossil plant dumped 5.4 million cubic yards of coal ash slurry that polluted the Emory River, damaged nearby homes and cost TVA more than $1.1 billion to cleanup.

"Considering the national attention of the these groups and TVA's coal ash management issues, we believed ratepayers deserve to know how their money is being spent with these groups," said Daniel Tait, research and communications manager for the Energy and Policy Institute. "USWAG specifically has lobbied and litigated for many years to undermine coal ash protections."

In a 12-page lawsuit against TVA, attorneys Shelby Ward of Lenoir City and Allison Kole of Washington D.C. argue that "TVA takes an impermissibly expansive approach to the application of FOIA exemptions" by denying access to some of the requests made by the Energy and Policy Institute.