The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) knowingly schemed to divert an investigation into the cause of a massive coal ash spill at its Kingston, Tenn., site in an effort to protect itself from lawsuits and restore its tattered public image, according to report released by the utility’s internal watchdog.
The report released this week suggests the nation’s largest utility tried desperately to keep the public from knowing the full story behind the cause of the spill, which destroyed more than two dozen homes and created one of the nation’s largest environmental disasters when a TVA coal ash impoundment pond breached last December, dumping more than a billion gallons of toxic coal ash onto a neighboring community and waterway.
“It appears the TVA management made a conscious decision to present to the public only facts that supported an absence of liability for TVA for the Kingston spill,” says Richard Moore, the utility’s Inspector General who wrote the report. TVA CEO Tom Kilgore in a written statement denied the agency was involved in a cover up.
The report comes on the heels of a separate analysis, released in June and approved by the TVA board last week. That analysis was secured by a legal firm hired by the board to advise the board on its legal duties related to the spill. That analysis, conducted by engineering firm AECOM, put much of the blame for the spill on four factors, which AECOM engineer Bill Walton said acted like a “perfect storm” in creating the disaster.
Those four factors include high water content of the ash, the height of the pile, the construction of sloping dikes over wet ash around the landfill, and a hidden layer of fly ash “slime” hidden 40 to 85 feet below the section of pond that breached.
If those four factors did in fact contribute to the spill, Moore says those factors should be looked into at other coal ash storage sites. “There is reasonable risk of other dike failures if changes are not made in the design, construction, oversight, and operation of the wet disposal sites throughout TVA,” the report states.
The Inspector General hired another engineering firm, Marshall Miller and Associates Inc., to review the analysis as part of the newly released report. Engineers concluded that the TVA had overemphasized the effects of the “slime” layer because it was something the agency would not be able to identify within the pond, thus lessening the blame on TVA management and removing the utility from liability.
The Inspector General’s report says the factors listed by AECOM may have contributed to the spill but that the real blame falls on TVA management for not taking measures to address issues regarding the structural integrity of the Kingston coal ash pond. Those issues were initially brought up in 1985 an internal memo, and again in 2004 in two engineering reports. Regardless of these memos, the newly released report states, “necessary systems, controls, standards and culture were not in place” at the TVA to prevent a disaster like the one that occurred at Kingston.
Moore testifies this week before the House Committee on Water and Infrastructure subcommittee.
Read the Inspector General’s Report.