Thursday, January 08, 2009

Senate Takes On TVA Ash Spill

Ash spill really is not the phrase needed to describe the massive enviromental and economic disaster that struck Roane County on Dec. 22, but for now it will do. The Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works chaired by Sen. Barbara Boxer, held a hearing today on the disaster and took testimony from TVA CEO Tom Kilgore, the county EMA Director Howie Rose and Dr. Stephen Smith with the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.

The committee website has video of the entire hearing at this link. (RealPlayer needed)

Sen. Boxer said in an opening statement:

"Over 130 million tons of coal combustion waste is produced in the U.S. every year. This is the equivalent of a train of boxcars stretching from Washington, D.C. to Melbourne, Australia.

A 2007 US EPA report found 67 ash impoundments or landfills in 23 states that had caused or were suspected of causing contamination, including to ground or surface waters. EPA knew of dozens of other sites but lacked sufficient information to single out the cause.

For nearly three decades, EPA has been looking at the issue of how to regulate combustion waste. The federal government has the power to regulate these wastes, and inaction has allowed this enormous volume of toxic material to go largely unregulated. State efforts are very inconsistent, and as more and more toxic material is removed from coal combustion, it is critically important that protective standards for coal ash waste be established."

The testimony of Dr. Smith offers some of the best advice on what happened and how to prevent such disasters in the future -- I hope both the federal and the state government decide to enact strict regulations for these highly toxic collection sites. He noted:

"News reports and my organization’s preliminary investigation indicate that this could and should have been avoided. Shortcuts have been taken, rules were waved or broken and accountability has been absent; this was not a natural disaster this was a manmade disaster.

It is clear that, in its early response, TVA prioritized public relations over public health and has largely been overwhelmed by the size of this spill, which appears to be the largest industrial spill in our nation’s history.

The force of this accident not only ripped homes off their foundations—it also ripped the lid off of a national problem and the failure of EPA to develop minimum standards for this waste. It is outrageous that the landfills holding our household garbage are more regulated than the pits holding this toxic coal sludge.

Today I call on your committee to at a minimum:
1: Require an orderly phase out all wet storage of toxic coal ash;
2: Require EPA to immediately inspect and monitor all toxic coal ash storage and disposal units; and
3: Develop the long-promised Federal regulation of all toxic coal ash storage and disposal by year’s end.

TVA was born out of crippling economic times. As we find ourselves again in similar difficult times, this is an opportunity to remake TVA for the 21st Century.

Online folks also reported on the hearing -- Southern Beale - Part1 and Part 2, Aunt B. and Nashville Is Talking has a roundup. Local news station WATE takes on the story as well. The Knoxville News Sentinel's coverage is collected here.

Also, as Sen. Boxer has said, just covering the toxic ash spilled onto the riverbanks and yards for several hundred acres with grass seed is not a cleanup solution for the long-term. Much work is ahead and TVA has every reason to develop better methods when it comes to burning coal - demand better regulation for their protection and the safety of Tennessee residents, and to show they have a viable role in the energy business for this century.

Sen. Boxer also says more hearings on this issue are being planned.

(Background posts on this event are all tagged TVA spill if you want more information.)

UPDATE: R. Neal at KnoxViews has been reporting on another release of sludge, this time on the Ocoee River - here and here. And more lawsuits ahead on the disaster in Roane County.

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