Opinion: Should we add legal cases to the cost of TVA power?

Don't let anyone tell you your power bills are rising only because of inflation, increased natural gas prices and high costs of "clean" energy.

Instead, one might ask the Tennessee Valley Authority, which provides power to distributors in seven Southern states, just how many work-related and pollution-related lawsuits they're fighting on any given day. Two whopper ones just got headlines this week - both in federal courts where fighting lawsuits is most expensive.

Late last week, three former TVA nuclear oversight managers from each of the utility's three operating nuclear plants sued the utility claiming they were removed from their posts after alerting the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission to repeated safety concerns and violations at the plants.

Melody Babb, Deanna Fults and Mark Richerson contend they were ousted from their posts on the same day, July 8, 2019, and targeted for public humiliation in retaliation for their whistleblowing to the NRC and the TVA Office of Inspector General about safety concerns and intimidation of whistleblowers at TVA's three nuclear power plants, according to the Tennessee Lookout.

Babb was the senior manager for the independent whistleblowing program at Sequoyah Nuclear Plant in Soddy-Daisy. Fults had worked in whistleblowing complaint programs at both Watts Bar Nuclear Plants in Spring City, Tennessee, and Browns Ferry Nuclear plant in Athens, Alabama, before being named a manager in the corporate division of independent whistleblowing. And Richerson handled whistleblowing complaints at Browns Ferry.

The lawsuit says TVA not only removed the trio from their positions but also disbanded an independent whistleblowing program known as the Employee Concerns Program and "handpicked" overseers of a new program specifically designed to squelch dissent and intimidate would-be whistleblowers.

According to the Lookout, TVA declined immediate comment on the suit, saying officials had not yet seen it. But in statements when the workers were removed and the program was disbanded, TVA said the independent whistleblowing program was ineffective and Babb, Fults and Richerson lacked the skills and abilities for the new program.

If the lawsuit's claims are correct, it wouldn't be the first time TVA has tried to hush the messenger rather than fix the problems in its nuclear fleet of seven reactors.

The Lookout reports that both the NRC and TVA Office of Inspector General have accused TVA in various reports of harassing and firing whistleblowers to silence their safety concerns.

The NRC fined TVA $606,942 and banned a TVA vice president from working in NRC-licensed facilities for five years after ruling he played a "significant role" in the 2018 firing of nuclear engineer and safety whistleblower Beth Wetzel of Chattanooga. In that same case, the U.S. Department of Labor in 2020 ruled that TVA executives, including its corporate attorney, terminated Wetzel "because of the information she provided during [a] chilled work environment investigation." TVA later settled with Wetzel, who at that time was the fourth TVA nuclear oversight staffer in the past year to claim retaliation for raising safety concerns, according to the Knoxville News Sentinel.

TVA has denied any wrongdoing in any of these whistleblower cases.

Then there were - and are - the repercussions of lawsuits and claims surrounding the 2008 Kingston ash spill, which dumped a 1.1 billion-gallon flood of toxic coal sludge into the Emory River and onto surrounding residential farmland in Roane County's Harriman, Tennessee.

Just last month, a federal appellate court struck down a last-ditch appeal by a Tennessee Valley Authority cleanup contractor, Jacobs Engineering Inc.

Jacobs' workers and workers' survivors have accused the company of "mass poisoning by radioactive coal ash waste" telling workers the ash residue was safe when it was not, according to a report in the Tennessee Lookout. In that case, the 6th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruled Jacobs Engineering Inc., "cannot ride the coattails of TVA governmental immunity."

Apparently neither can TVA. That's because, in another, unrelated federal lawsuit that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court in 2019, the high court determined TVA does not enjoy carte blanche immunity - especially when its "commercial" business of producing and selling electricity is involved. TVA maintains it does have immunity. Stay tuned.

But don't think the Jacobs case - which has been dragging through the courts for about eight years - is the only legal ramification and cost threat for the rate-payer funded federal utility.

After the ash spill, TVA bought out hundreds of Harriman property owners and spent $1.2 billion just on environmental clean up that wasn't declared complete until 2015. Additionally, the agency committed to phasing out wet storage coal ash facilities like the one that failed, estimating in 2019 the additional cleanup effort will cost another $3 billion to $5 billion.

Another legal angle of the Jacobs case is, this week, getting hearings in front of the Tennessee Supreme Court. At issue there is a Tennessee law that limits legal challenges involving exposure to silica, a component of coal ash.

What new avenues of legal and environmental costs might that day in court open up? Well, look at it this way: TVA once operated 59 coal generating units.

Upcoming Events