KNOXVILLE — The Tennessee site of one of the nation's worst coal ash spills failed to make a federal list of ash storage ponds posing the highest potential threat to nearby residents — a list that was compiled in response to the massive Tennessee disaster.
Critics say the Kingston Fossil Plant's absence from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's "high hazard" list underscores the need for greater federal oversight of coal ash and the weakness of a system that allows the Tennessee Valley Authority and other ash-site operators to rate their own storage sites.
"It's outrageous," said Steve Smith, director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. "EPA as the regulator should not be allowing the utilities to regulate themselves on the safety of toxic coal. This is a fundamentally flawed approach to protecting human health and the environment."
More than 5 million cubic yards of coal ash breached an earthen dike last Dec. 22 at the Kingston plant, about 40 miles west of Knoxville. The spill sent a wave of toxic coal ash and sludge into the Emory River and covered 300 acres of land. It damaged two dozen homes, buried roads and a rail line, and raised health concerns throughout rural Roane County.
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TVA compiled its ratings before the Kingston disaster, according to TVA's March 25 response to EPA, recently obtained by The Associated Press.
In a footnote, the TVA conceded that "based on hindsight at Kingston Fossil Plant, the ranking did not adequately represent the actual risk experienced on 12-22-2008." The TVA letter to EPA also noted a gypsum pond spill Jan. 9 and a small release of fly ash in 2004 at the Widows Creek plant, and a fly-ash release in 2004 at the Johnsonville plant.
EPA's list, unveiled two weeks ago, named 44 high-risk ash sites in 26 communities in 10 states. None was in Tennessee.
TVA, the nation's largest public utility, determined that the risk of harm was "low" for those living near all 11 of its operating coal-fired power plants and one retired plant in Tennessee, Kentucky and Alabama, including Kingston. This was on a scale of "high, significant, low or less-than-low."
The TVA's document also suggested the utility is tightening its standards to ensure that professional engineers supervise all design, construction and monitoring of its ash storage sites.
EPA wouldn't say if Kingston should have made the high hazard list.
"The states give the sites their ratings. EPA does not rate the sites," EPA spokeswoman Tisha Petteway said.
However in Tennessee, the self-regulating TVA assumes this authority.
"I've checked with our Divisions of Solid Waste, Water Pollution Control and the Safe Dams Program, and I cannot find anyone in the department who was contacted by EPA regarding the safety of coal-ash impoundments as part of the EPA's national investigation," said Tisha Calabrese-Benton, spokeswoman at Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation.
Smith said it was troubling that "TDEC has not engaged here. TVA's Kingston rating is an example of how bad the EPA system is."
TVA spokesman John Moulton said the "low" hazard rankings "were assigned by TVA personnel" some time ago, but they will be updated by engineering consultants Stantec Inc., who were hired after the Kingston spill to make recommendations for all of TVA's coal ash sites.
The consultants are first evaluating the sites for "risk of failure," he said. Later, they will consider the "consequences if a failure occurs," which would include the ratings for EPA.
"Clearly the accident at Kingston is a learning experience for TVA and the entire industry, and how to reduce risk is something that everyone in the industry is looking at," Moulton said.
EarthJustice attorney Lisa Evans said the ratings shouldn't be taken lightly or left to utility self-grading.
"It seems to me this is a very important first step towards protecting a threatened community," Evans said.
TVA serves nearly 9 million consumers through 158 distributors in Tennessee and parts of Alabama, Mississippi, Kentucky, Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia.