The Tennessee Valley Authority had been warned for years that toxic coal ash could spill out of its retention ponds and into nearby waterways, but managers ignored those warnings, the agency's inspector general said in a report issued last week.
In December, 5.4 million cubic yards of coal ash at the TVA's Kingston Fossil Plant spilled out from a retaining pond. The ash polluted Tennessee's Emory River and swamped nearby homes.
Inspector General Richard Moore said the TVA tried to minimize the agency's legal liability and initially tried to suppress information that pointed to management's "culpability" in the spill.
Coal ash, the residue of the coal burned for electric power, contains several toxic elements. It is typically stored behind dams in huge ponds that resemble landfills. One of the dams at the Kingston plant broke, releasing the coal ash.
A $3 million report commissioned to determine the cause of the spill attributed the dam's failure to a layer of watery ash deep inside the coal ash pond. That finding reduced the TVA's responsibility, essentially saying management couldn't have predicted what would happen.
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However, Moore said the TVA's management allowed its lawyers to manipulate the scope of the study to avoid making the agency look bad.
Moore said the TVA was warned several times by employees and consultants over the past 24 years about the potential problem. In addition, small leaks of coal ash from the Kingston retention pond in 2003 and 2006 should have been a tip-off to TVA managers.
Moore said the main problem seems to be that "ash was relegated to the status of garbage at a landfill rather than treating it as a potential hazard to the public and the environment."
Last month the TVA's board of directors admitted "mistakes were made," which is a weak admission of the problem. The TVA obviously didn't pay attention to the environmental danger and didn't want to deal with the consequences after the spill happened.
Congress should hold the TVA's management accountable for cleaning up the Kingston pond and making sure the agency fixes its other ponds before more damage is done.