WASHINGTON — Senators from both sides of the aisle took the Tennessee Valley Authority to task during a congressional hearing Thursday into the TVA's handling of last month's spill of 1 billion gallons of toxic sludge in Tennessee.
TVA, the nation's largest public power company, will probably have to pass along part of the multibillion-dollar cleanup cost through rate increases to its 9 million users in Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia. But lawmakers promised to hold the company accountable for helping the region recover from one of the nation's worst environmental spills.
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"I think we're unanimous that TVA should clean up this mess," Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., said during the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing.
The committee's chairwoman, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., was more strident in her criticism of the Dec. 22 sludge flood at a coal ash-filled pond in Kingston, Tenn. — an event she characterized as "100 times greater than the amount of oil spilled during the Exxon Valdez" spill off the coast of Alaska in 1989.
TVA president Tom Kil gore told the committee the power company would do a "first-rate job" on cleanup and promised to help find better ways to store coal ash, which usually ends up in gravel pits, abandoned mines, unlined landfills and ponds like the one that burst in Kingston.
"We'll start with the people first, and the environment comes right after that," Kil gore said.
He said wet slurry ponds are the oldest method of storing coal ash. Environmentalists say they're also unregulated and the cheapest.
Kilgore told the committee that, before the flood, TVA opted not to use an expensive repair recommended by outside experts after problems were discovered at the King ston pond.
He estimated that TVA has had about 20 other unlined ash ponds for decades, raising concerns that the toxic material could leach through the bottom. There are also "one or two other places" that are areas of concern because of "a wet spot on the dike," he said, but he didn't elaborate.
Boxer said her committee would press TVA to produce a list of hazards at other coal ash impoundments.
The problems from coal ash sludge at the Kingston pond extend beyond storage, William Rose, director of the Roane County, Tenn., office of emergency services, told the committee. After the flood, his office had problems working with TVA because the company doesn't use the same emergency preparedness program for ponds and dikes that it uses at the region's nuclear and hydroelectric facilities.
Similarly, Kentucky doesn't require emergency plans for its coal-company impoundments.
Those who live near ponds like the one in Tennessee also fear for their health.
Five neighbors from Harriman, Tenn., who live near the Kingston plant, came to Washington for the hearing.
Teresa Riggs said she wanted the EPA to tell the community what's in the sludge and wasn't satisfied with TVA's assurances.
"If it's not hazardous, why are they telling us not to track it in the house?" she said outside the hearing. Officials also warned them not to let children play outside and not to let animals drink river water.
There have been roughly 50 instances when the EPA issued violations against TVA and the public power company fought many of those censures, Boxer said during the hearing. EPA has not declared coal ash a hazardous waste and has not issued national guidelines on disposal.
Boxer apologized for Congress's failure to provide oversight.
"We didn't do enough in the first two years I held this gavel in looking at TVA," she said. "I am sorry. I am truly sorry. ... I assumed too much about their environmental stewardship."