The head of the Tennessee Valley Authority pledged the federal electric utility would do a "first-rate job" cleaning up the mess left from last month's massive coal ash spill. But at a Congressional committee hearing to examine the spill he faced sharp criticism from senators unconvinced by his promises.
"You need to have a plan to clean this spill up and you don't have it yet," said Senator Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat and chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, which conducted the hearing. "People will never feel safe there again."
TVA President and CEO Tom Kilgore testified that the utility is committed to completely remediating the contaminated area and will work to compensate affected residents. Boxer pressed Kilgore on TVA's lack of a plan to deal with two river coves popular with residents. "We want to recover all that we can recover," Kilgore said. While TVA does not have plans to clean up the coves, the utility doesn't have "plans not to," he said.
"That's not an answer," Boxer responded. "That's not cleanup."
Boxer also questioned Kilgore about reports that TVA had been warned of the potential failure of the impoundment wall at least twice in the past five years, but balked at a $25 million project to secure the site. "You went with the cheapest fix, and now you have the most expensive problem," Boxer said. "The cost of that $25 million is going to seem like pennies compared to what it is going to cost to clean this up." Early estimates of cleanup costs are as high as $250 million.
Boxer said the spill highlights the need for federal regulations to govern the disposal of toxic coal ash, noting that state regulatory efforts have been inconsistent at best. "For nearly three decades, EPA has been looking the issue of how to regulate combustion waste," Boxer said. "The federal government has the power to regulate these wastes, and inaction has allowed this enormous volume of toxic material to go largely unregulated," she said.
Boxer said the ash shouldn't be held in ponds, where it can contaminate water supplies. Coal ash also has been placed in abandoned mines and quarries. In other cases, dry ash is held in lined landfills.
Stephen Smith, the director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, called for federal regulation of coal combustion waste, saying that voluntary industry practices and state rules haven't prevented the contamination of land and water near disposal sites. "We absolutely need to keep ash out of the water," Smith said. "Storing it wet is unacceptable."
"It is critically important that protective standards for coal ash waste be established," Boxer said. "The EPA doesn't even need any legislation from us. They have the ability to regulate this and I see it is coming. I hope it is coming."
The full report is here.