In late December of 2008 the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Kingston Fossil Plant in Roane County, Tennessee, experienced the largest coal ash disaster in U.S. history. The retaining reservoir collapse, which received little attention in the way of national media coverage, released 5.4 million cubic yards of toxic sludge that fouled more than 300 acres of the surrounding countryside and led to a billion dollar cleanup effort still underway and a litany of lawsuits. Time magazine covered the story in January, and then GQ did an in-depth article in June.
In the aftermath, it has come to light that, not only was the TVA aware of the dangers posed by expanding coal ash ponds for more than twenty years and failed to act, the TVA also deliberately mitigated the possibility of management being found liable in the Kingston collapse according to a new report from the independent Inspector General of the TVA.
If only the Kingston facility was unique.
EPA Lists Hazardous Sites, None TVA
In March of this year, the EPA, which has been reticent to list coal ash as hazardous waste, issued information request letters to electric utilities around the country utilizing waste dikes similar to the Kingston facility. Reviewing the responses to these letters, combined with on-site inspections, the EPA released a list at the end of June of 44 sites around the country with waste dikes that rated as a “high hazard potential” to the surrounding area. Such a rating indicates that a failure at the site would likely result in loss of life. The list contains four sites in West Virginia, seven in Kentucky, six in Ohio, nine in Arizona, twelve in North Carolina, two in Illinois, and one each in Indiana, Pennsylvania, Georgia, and Montana.
“The presence of liquid coal ash impoundments near our homes, schools and business could pose a serious risk to life and property in the event of an impoundment rupture…By compiling a list of these facilities, EPA will be better able to identify and reduce potential risks by working with states and local emergency responders.”
– Lisa P. Jackson, EPA Administrator
Surprisingly, of the TVA’s 11 active coal-fired power plants and one retired plant, none made the list, including the Kingston facility where the spill occurred. TVA had classified all of them as a “low” risk of harm. When the hypocrisy of the TVA assessing its own sites was pointed out, the TVA responded that its assessment of its sites occurred prior to the Kingston incident and that “in the interest of taking a conservative, self-critical approach” four of its 12 sites had been given a preliminary reassessment ranking of “high risk”. The utility also indicated that an outside consultancy, Stantec, had been hired to perform a comprehensive, independent reassessment of all of its facilities.
Despite these substantial preliminary reassessment hazard upgrades, none of the TVA’s facilities has been added to the EPA’s list.
Specific to the Kingston disaster, the Inspector General of the TVA testified on July 28 before the House Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment. In conjunction with the testimony, the OIG released a 110-page report detailing the investigation of the cause of the Kingston failure.
Looking the Other Way
The OIG investigation found that the TVA had been aware of the stability dangers of expanding coal ash ponds for better than 20 years and had opted not to add the waste water dikes to its internal Dam Safety Program, which would have required rigorous inspections and related engineering. The TVA’s own Enterprise Risk Management process, which had been in place since 1999, did not consider ash management as a risk, and the report found the culture within TVA considered the ash more as garbage rather than a potential environmental hazard.
“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.”
– Richard W. Moore, Inspector General, Tennessee Valley Authority
As to the TVA’s reactions to the Kingston disaster, the OIG report found that TVA management had too narrowly defined the scope of a root cause analysis performed by independent engineering firm AECOM with the intended result of minimizing management culpability, while at the same time encouraging everyone at the authority to simply “move forward” from the event with little in the way of lessons learned.
Historically, an internal TVA memorandum from 1987 warned of the breech potential of expanding coal ash ponds, noting hazards to surface and groundwater systems while encouraging greater oversight. The OIG report found that, while the memo generated some internal discussion regarding whether or not such sites should be added to the Authority’s Dam Safety Program, the TVA opted against such a classification.
“Greater amounts of ash have resulted in expansion of ash ponds. In some instances the dikes that contain this water have become quite high with increasing risk and consequences of a breech. Because of the potential for 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.”
– Internal TVA memorandum, 1987
The dike at the Kingston facility had grown to a height of over 60 feet and covered 84 acres of riverbank at the time it collapsed.
It was not as if the Kingston site had not provided its own warnings.
The Kingston dike had noticeable “seepage” issues in both 2003 and 2006, to which the TVA responded with patch jobs rather than more expensive and comprehensive repairs. During his testimony before the Senate’s Environmental and Public Works committee in January, Tom Kilgore, the TVA President and CEO, admitted, “Obviously, that looks bad for us…We thought this containment was a viable containment. We had no reason to believe that it wouldn’t hold this.”
The EPA has promised proposed regulation of coal combustion wastes by the end of this year.
- 1987 – Internal TVA memorandum warns of ash pond dangers
- 1999 – TVA initiates internal Enterprise Risk Management process
- 2003 – TVA Kingston facility experiences a “seepage” issue which is patched
- 2005 – TVA Kingston facility experiences a “seepage” issue which is patched
- 2008, Dec 22 – Coal ash dike at Kingston Fossil Plant fails
- 2009, Jan 8 – Tom Kilgore, TVA President and CEO, testifies before EPW
- 2009, Mar 9 – EPA sends information request letters to electric utilities
- 2009, Jun 25 – TVA announces findings of AECOM root cause analysis study
- 2009, Jun 29 – EPA releases list of 44 “High Hazard Potential” sites
- 2009, Jul 28 – TVA OIG testifies before Congress with accompanying report
- 2009, Dec 31 – EPA deadline for regulation proposal on coal combustion wastes