KNOXVILLE — The massive coal ash spill at a Tennessee Valley Authority power plant last month wasn't so much "catastrophic" as it was a "sudden, accidental release."
That's according to a memo obtained by The Associated Press that was prepared by TVA's 50-member public relations staff for briefing news media the day after the disaster at the Kingston Fossil Plant, about 40 miles west of Knoxville.
The nation's largest public utility has been accused by environmentalists and affected residents of soft-pedaling the seriousness of the flood of toxin-laden ash that filled inlets of the Emory River and swept away or damaged lakeside homes.
Steve Smith, director of the environmental group Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, told a U.S. Senate committee that TVA downplayed the potential toxicity of the ash and the extent of the damage immediately afterward and for several days more.
"Oh, absolutely. They came out and said everything is safe, right?" said Bruce Nilles, a Madison, Wis.-based attorney for the Sierra Club.
The Dec. 23 document, inadvertently sent to the AP and once labeled "risk assessment talking points," was crafted as TVA scrambled to contain a spill that caused no serious injuries but displaced several people and continues to pose an environmental threat.
"That was very early on," TVA spokesman John Moulton said about the memo, in which "catastrophic" was replaced with "sudden, accidental" to describe the "release of this large amount of material."
"We were putting in the word that we thought ... best described it at that time," he said. "Now, we certainly realize it is a very serious event, and we realized then it was a very serious event. There was no attempt to downplay it."
The memo was edited to remove "risk to public health and risk to the environment" as a reason for measuring water quality and the potential of an "acute threat" to fish.
A reworked description of fly ash noted it mostly "consists of inert material not harmful to the environment," while references to "toxic metals" in the ash were moved to a section on water sampling.
Noel Holston, a public relations specialist with the University of Georgia's Peabody journalism awards program, said it would be "hard to infer a motive to such corrections and fine tunings."
But he said, "I can't imagine that anyone who sees these additions and deletions would not conclude that the final version is softer and less alarming than the earlier wording. The fact is they whittled away at this until it said something a little less frightening than what it originally said."
Emily Reynolds, a TVA senior vice president who oversees agency communications, wasn't available for an interview about the public relations strategy for the spill.
She instead issued a statement saying, "From day one our priority has been to provide our stakeholders, especially Roane County residents, with accurate and timely information about the Kingston spill. TVA will continue to be open and transparent with the media and public in addressing questions and concerns ...."
As the scope of the spill became more clear, TVA's message did expand. Five days later, it doubled its estimate of ash released — from 2.6 million cubic yards to 5.4 million.
A day later, it prepared a warning with state health and environmental agencies saying residents should avoid direct contact with fly ash to prevent skin irritation and respiratory problems.
But even local emergency officials wanted a second opinion when it came to dealing with the disaster.
Scott Stout, spokesman for the Roane County Emergency Agency, said his agency contacted the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation as quickly as they could, which led to the involvement of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
"Because whatever TVA was saying, we didn't feel like the public had confidence in what their reports were saying," Stout said.
So far, environmental monitoring suggests drinking water from the river and private wells is safe and the air is clear.
Still, Sarah McCoin worries. She lives less than a mile upstream of the spill and hoped to get straight answers from TVA President and CEO Tom Kilgore at a public meeting two weeks ago.
"If fly ash is not a hazardous material, why then are all these precautions being made?" she said she asked him.
"We are spraying the contamination off the trucks that are going up and down the road. 'Don't let your dogs or your pets get out. Don't let them drink the water. Keep your kids away from it. Don't breathe it. If you have any contact with it, spray it off.'
"He said, 'It is not a hazardous material.' I said, 'I don't understand.'"