:Chattanooga; :Jul 29, 2009; :Front Page; :1


Congress blisters TVA over spill

By Pam Sohn and Dave Flessner psohn@timesfreepress.com

Online: Read the TVA inspector general’s

repor t. Read previous stories. Comment.

    TVA officials pledged Tuesday to “change the culture” of the utility after a scathing new report found management failed to heed “red flags” leading up to a massive December ash spill, then stifled a $3 million investigation into the disaster’s cause.

    But when TVA CEO Tom Kilgore on Tuesday acknowledged to a U.S. congressional panel that the utility’s technical and management systems need to change, he was met with skepticism.

    “TVA is like turning around the Queen Mary,” said U.S. Rep. Parker Griffith, D-Ala.

    Mr. Kilgore vowed that change will happen.

    “If that means that heads have to roll, then so be it,” he said. “If I have learned any lesson, it is that I need to be more intrusive. The safety factor has to be increased.”

    The pledge, and a similar one made later in the day in a prepared statement from TVA Board Chairman Mike Duncan, came on the heels of the public release of TVA Inspector General Richard Moore’s review of the ash spill and TVA’s “root cause” study.

    Mr. Moore found that TVA failed for more than 20 years to
heed warnings that might have prevented the Dec. 22 spill of 1.1 billion gallons of toxic ash onto 300 acres of residential land and into the Emory River near the Kingston Fossil Plant.

    “The TVA culture at fossil plants relegated ash to the status of garbage at a landfill rather than treating it as a potential hazard to the public and the environment,” Mr. Moore said Tuesday to members of the U.S. Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment. “We believe this culture resulted in management failures which contributed to the Kingston Spill.”

    Mr. Kilgore admitted to the panel that a 1987 report found problems with the Kingston ash landfill. The fix in that report called for daily inspections, he said.

    “We know now that was not enough,” Mr. Kilgore told the panel Tuesday. “I’m saddened and frankly a little bit mad that I walked into this, but it’s my responsibility to clean it up.”

    With the new report touting TVA’s “lack of transparency and accountability,” Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and other members of Congress question the federal utility’s management.

    “The inspector general’s report raises major concerns which must be taken seriously and which I will discuss with TVA management,” Sen. Alexander said Tuesday in a prepared statement.

    “TVA needs to learn from the report so it can take every reasonable step to ensure that such a coal ash spill never happens again,” he said.

    THE IG’S REPORT

    Mr. Moore said his report was first presented to the TVA board in mid-July. The 111-page document, made public Tuesday, faults TVA on many fronts both before and after the spill.

    “TVA could have possibly prevented the Kingston spill if it had taken recommended corrective actions,” the report states. “TVA was aware of ‘red flags’ that were raised over a long period of time signaling the need for safety modifications to TVA ash ponds.”

    The inspector general also found that, after the spill, TVA not only “made no effort to publicly disclose” what management practices may have contributed to the spill, but also stifled the agency’s own investigation into the causes in order to limit the utility’s legal liability.

    “TVA management handled the root cause analysis in a manner that avoided transparency and accountability in favor of preserving a litigation strategy,” the report states.

    TVA signed a $3 million consulting contract with AECOM Technology Corp. to conduct an analysis on the spill’s root cause, Mr. Moore said, but the terms of the contract severely limited the scope of the work AECOM could and would accomplish.

    The consulting firm couldn’t review the standards of practice used by TVA for design and construction of ash ponds and dredge cells; it couldn’t examine the fate and transport of ash and contaminants to the environment; it couldn’t look into the design of remedial construction measures to clean and restore the Kingston site or examine the designs and operations at other TVA wet ash disposal sites.

    The result, according to the report, was that AECOM’s rootcause report “overemphasized the ‘slimes’ layer (of ash) as a trigger for the Kingston spill, which could limit corrective actions.”

    REVEALING RECORDS

    Red flags were raised years ago in a 1987 internal memorandum stating that “greater amounts of ash have resulted in expansions of ash ponds,” according to the new report.

    “In some instances, the dikes that contain this water have become quite high with increasing risk and consequences of a breach,” the report said. “Because of the potential harm to both surface and groundwater from the failure of a dike, greater attention and establishment of more specific inspection standards for these dikes should be examined.”

    Mr. Moore said the memo prompted an internal debate at TVA about whether the utility should include the ash dikes in its Dam Safety Program, an offshoot of a national dam inventory designed to ensure regular inspections and danger assessments tied to what consequences could occur if a dam breaks.

    Ultimately, the report states, TVA did not place the ash ponds under its Dam Safety Program.

    During the congressional hearing, Mr. Kilgore acknowledged that mistakes were made after the 1987 memo.

    “I admit to you right now that the inspector general found there was not proper action on those old reports,” he said. “That’s what I have to fix.”

    Several weeks ago, after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released a list of 44 high-hazard ash impoundments, TVA revised the designations of four of its remaining ash dams from low-hazard to high-hazard, according to TVA Chief Operating Officer Bill McCullum.

    Harriman resident Sarah McCoin, an outspoken critic of TVA since the spill, said the records cited in the report are proof that TVA management “has been providing a false sense of concern” for the community.

    “Finally, the truth is being exposed,” she said Tuesday after reading the report. “TVA has been firing from the hip in an effort to hide the truth.”

    Mr. Moore said Tuesday afternoon that he is encouraged by the TVA board’s mid-July response to his report. Board members called for a culture change within the agency, Mr. Moore said, and Mr. Kilgore “has done some things that are promising.”

    During the hearing, Mr. Kilgore told Congress members that he will not be comfortable until TVA personnel know what’s underground at all 12 of the utility’s ash storage sites.

    “Unfortunately, the steps we didn’t take in the past will now fall on our ratepayers,” he said. “We will try to amortize that over several years. And my job is to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

CONGRESS COMMENTS

    U.S. Sen. Bob Corker,

R-Tenn., said short-term concerns have been with the community, but over the long term: “We want to do everything we can to make sure this never happens again, and addressing the issues raised in the inspector general’s report will be an important step in that effort.”

    U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp

said TVA’s executive management team must assure power customers and residents that decisive actions will be taken “to change the internal culture of ambivalence and be held accountable for reforms that guarantee public safety.”

    U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., also called for reforms. In Georgia earlier this month, construction of a new coal-fired power plant was blocked by a judge. “What happened at Kingston is an early warning for everyone who burns coal,” he said.

    U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., did not respond to a request for comment.

    U.S. Rep. Heath Shuler, D-N.C., and Sen. Alexander’s co-chairman on the TVA Congressional Caucus, declined comment.


The Associated Press TVA president and chief executive officer Tom Kilgore, right, testifies Tuesday on Capitol Hill in Washington.