The TVA Ash Spill One Year Later: Lessons Learned

Nearly a year ago on Monday, December 22, 2009, at the Kingston fossil fuel plant in Eastern Tennessee, a fly ash impoundment collapsed and within minutes released 5.4 million cubic yards of toxic fly ash into the Emory River and over 300 acres of land. The spill damaged numerous homes, destroyed a portion of a rail line and covered a portion of a highway. Fortunately there were no fatalities, but the lives of hundreds of nearby residents were severely altered, some forever, by one of the worst in environmental disaster in our nation’s history. The TVA estimates that it will cost rate- payers more than one billion dollars for the clean-up effort.

Equally troubling is the TVA’s inept response to the disaster. A response so reckless it will undoubtedly be recorded in the annals of disaster history as what not to do in the wake of calamity. In the aftermath of the Exxon-Valdez oil spill (1989) there appeared a number of case studies criticizing Exxon’s response to the spill, describing their response as a classic management case study of how not to response to a catastrophe. In light of the TVA’s flawed response to the ash spill, in years to come their failure will certainly be viewed as yet another textbook case of how not to respond to crisis.

The Agency’s response has been more than simply flawed. The TVA’s tactical response to the disaster has been to manufacture doubt and uncertainty to keep the public confused and avoid environmental compliance and accountability. Their ability to pursue this strategy calls into question the regulatory powers of state and federal agencies.

As a result of this kind of an approach, their credibility has been severely questioned by many and some would argue that in weeks and months that followed the agency has squandered whatever credibility they had left.

The question remains if the TVA can recover their credibility and actually be perceived as having eventually taken the necessary steps to repair the damage to both the affected families and the environment. Even though the TVA appears to have, somewhat reluctantly, taken some modest steps in recent months the jury is still out on whether they will be able to restore their image and whether or not they have truly reformed or are merely undertaking yet another public relations campaign to repair their image and avoid transparency.

From the beginning they appeared to down play the event. In the first early hours in the media and on their websites they referred to the disaster as an “ash slide”. Their early statements also underestimated the damage considerably by reporting that an estimated 1.8 million cubic yards of coal ash was spilled but they were later forced to issue a correction when radar analysis revealed the amount to be 5.4 cubic million yards.

Tom Kilgore, TVA CEO referred to the disaster as an “inconvenience” and TVA Senior Vice President for Environmental Policy, Anda Ray, astonishingly refused to call the spill an environmental disaster since in her mind coal waste is “inert”. Instead, she described the event as “a challenging event to restore the community back to normalcy”

The efforts to downplay the disaster continued as Tom Kilgore prematurely declared the situation as “safe”. In his statement he said, “chemicals in the ash spill are of concern, but the situation is probably safe.” A statement made long before there was as any scientific evidence to support such a claim. Then Gilbert Francis Jr. an agency spokesperson made a statement to the press saying that ash spill materials “do contain some heavy metals within it, but it is not toxic or anything.” These statements are ironic in light of a later internal report that would criticize the TVA for having “relegated [ash] to the status of garbage at a landfill rather than treating it as a potential hazard to the public and the environment.”

Journalists, environmentalists, public health specialists and independent scientists wondered how the TVA could make such assertions when extensive scientific studies had not yet to been conducted. Whether or not there was imminent harm to public health or the environment seemed in some people’s minds to be an open question that required more extensive investigation rather than hasty pronouncements.

In the wake of most disasters there often is an “informational vacuum” and research demonstrates that too often responsible parties hastily attempt to fill this vacuum with incomplete or misinformation before all the information and research is readily available to fully inform the public.

These initial missteps cascaded into a series of missteps or calculated manuvers. To some observers it soon began to appear that the TVA either didn’t comprehend the severity of the event or was trying desperately to deny its severity and downplay it. In the coming weeks and months the TVA’s handling of the event seemed in the eyes of some, if not many, to swing wildly out of control. The question in some minds was “how could an agency as large, as powerful, as the TVA falter again and again and appear to take such a reckless approach.

In addition to the false start described above, many of the TVA’s responses called in to question “who was in charge?” As well as why the agency seemed to have so much difficulty in recovering. Among many of the missteps too numerous to mention were:

* To the shock of many, the TVA did not implement a National Incident Management System in accordance with Homeland Security Presidential Directive 5. The failure of which severely hampered emergency response communications with county, state and federal agency. In light of our nation’s national disaster response to 9/11 and all the implemented in response to this national tragedy it was shocking and disturbing to many that an agency the size of the TVA, was not prepared to interactive with a system so vital to our nation’s security. The idea that an agency with had so many major dams, fossil fuel plants, and nuclear facilities was unprepared to communicate and interact with NIMS was startling to seasoned disaster responders.

* Uncertainties, doubts, and concern increased in many peoples’ mind when independent researchers began reporting test results that conflicted with the TVA’s test results. Doubt and concern increased when the TVA severely restricted access to the afflicted area and prevented independent testing. Whether or not the move was surreptitious, it appeared to be so in the eyes of many. As the disparity in the risk evaluations grew and residents learned more about the potential health risks, concerns about health increased, as did concerns about long-term harm to the environment. One resident affected by the spill stated, “The TVA tends to dance around the issue and not tell you direct answers. Another resident, who attended the TVA’s public meetings argued, “The TVA will sand bag you with tons of irrelevant data but will not answer your questions.”

* The TVA’s credibility was further eroded when an internal memo prepared by the agency’s public relations staff, labeled, “risk assessment talking points” was leaked to inadvertently emailed to the Associated Press. The memo stated that the coal ash spill was best described as a “sudden accidental release” rather than “catastrophic.” The memo further advised that to remove from any future statements the word, “risk to public health and risk to the environment” as the reason for monitoring water quality. A discussion of fly ash was revised to note that it consists of “inert” materials and is not harmful to the environment.” Suspicions about the TVA’s statements grew in the minds of some journalists as well as the families affected by the spill. As an internal TVA report would later state, “repeated efforts by the media to learn anything about the TVA’s culpability were met with artful dodges” thereby confirming earlier suspicions about the TVA’s motives.

* Doubts and suspicions were galvanized in some minds when in the summer of 2009 the TVA’s inspector general released a report that claimed that the TVA had ignored several decades of warnings that could have prevented the tragedy from occurring.

* The report went on to assert that the TVA made a conscious effort to suppress certain facts. In commenting on the TVA’s failure to investigate and report management practices that contributed to the spill the IG’s report states: ” the fact that the TVA would not review management practices may have contributed to the failure, but would instead tightly circumscribe the scope of the review to intentionally avoid revealing any evidence that would suggest culpability on the part of the TVA: “In fact, it would appear that 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”.

* The report continues by exploring the issue further and stating that the agency’s dilemma appears to have been accountability versus litigation. The IG’s report suggests that one the one hand the TVA could have conducted a “diligent” review of TVA management practices and a technical examination of the failed impoundment structure and release their findings to the public or decide on a second choice which the report characterizes as to “circle the wagons” by only publishing favorable press releases and “attempt to minimize its legal liability.” Both choices, the report argues are value judgments. While the inspector general’s office does not have definitive information about how the decision was made the report suggests it would appear the TVA made the latter choice. If true, this is indeed unfortunate since, aside from the public’s right to know, research demonstrates that the lack of transparency in the wake of disasters creates undo uncertainty and anxiety in the minds of those most affected by the tragedy. Decisions like this underscore the fact that it is not always science the drives decision-making process in the wake of disasters but rather politics and the culture of organizations.

* Finally, just this month the Environmental Integrity Project has just released new data, which in their words “paints an even grimmer picture of the coal ash disaster. Based on reports filed with the Environmental Protection Agency by the TVA, the ash spill “dumped an estimated 140,000 pounds of arsenic into the Emory River-more than twice the reported amount discharged in U.S. waterways from all power plants in 2007.”

* The Toxics Release Inventory filed by TVA with the EPA also reports that other toxic pollutants, such as vanadium, chromium, lead, manganese, and nickel were deposited in the river at levels higher than twice the amount of reported amounts discharged in 2007 by all U.S. power plants into U.S. waterways. Not only is the shear amount of these toxic pollutants disturbing and troublesome, but also the fact that while the TVA reported these discharges, at some point in time, to the EPA, they failed to be transparent and report the same facts to the general public. Why did it take a report issued by an independent organization to make these amounts and their potential consequences known to the general public? Why has the TVA itself failed to do so? As we await the agency’s response to these findings one cannot help but wonder if the TVA in its denial is not about to generate another media spin designed to create uncertainty.

Richard Moore, the TVA’s Inspector General, recently testified before the United States House Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. In his statements he recounts some of his earlier findings on the failure of the TVA in responding to the ash spill disaster and outlines current attempts by the TVA to remedy their failures. Moore believes the TVA is “marching in the right direction based on actions implemented and/or initiated to-date.” Although, he does caution: “it is too early to determine whether these will be sufficient to overcome a legacy of culture resistant to change.”

What worries me is that many decades of disaster research clearly demonstrate that in the wake of disasters, many lessons are learned, but seldom if ever are they implemented, even when corporations or government announce their attention to do so.

One thing is clear. The remedy to the TVA’s mishandling of the disaster requires more than a restructuring of management. If significant changes within the TVA corporate culture are to succeed, there must be recognition that even though science and technology are integral to responding to environmental disasters (which in this case seems to be the camouflage under which the TVA is hiding), research has demonstrated that the instinct to rely solely on an ‘engineering fix’ does not work. The TVA must recognize that the sociocultural issues within the agency and the affected communities cannot be ignored if they are to respond effectively to disasters and prevent them from happening in the future.

More importantly, given the TVA’s careless response to the ash spill disaster and its poor environmental record across the board (See the Environmental Integrity Project’s scathing report) it has become increasingly obvious that aside from a major sea change within it’s organizational structure the TVA must held more accountable to the EPA and Congressional oversight and be denied its unique status as a “federal” agency which shields it from being held more accountable. In short, it is time to redress the asymmetrical power relationship between an environmental polluter like the TVA and the federal agencies that are mandated to protect the environment and the public’s health.

GREGORY V. BUTTON, PhD is a faculty member at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville who has been researching disasters for over three decades. He is currently writing a book about the TVA Ash Spill titled, “When Ashes Flowed Like Water”. He can be contacted at