Senator promises TVA crackdown after coal ash spill

Environment and Public Works Chairwoman Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., also pledges to establish federal standards for the handling of coal ash.

Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., Thursday vowed an oversight crackdown on the Tennessee Valley Authority in the wake of last month's massive coal spill at one of its power plants and accused TVA President Tom Kilgore of negligence in the disaster.

"You have got big problems ...You have got to clean up your act, literally," Boxer told Kilgore at a hearing on the Dec. 22 incident.

The spill occurred after the earthen dike of a coal ash retention pool at the Kingston Fossil Plant near Harrison, Tenn., collapsed, flooding nearly 300 acres of the surrounding rural landscape with sludgy, black gunk.

Some of the mud also sluiced into the Emory and Clinch rivers. Boxer charged that Kilgore ignored evidence of weakness in the dike, which had sprung leaks on two earlier occasions, once in 2003 and then again in 2006.

"You were told you had problems [at the dike] and you chose the cheapest fix" rather than a comprehensive repair job, Boxer said. Kilgore, who became head of TVA in October 2006, said he was aware of the earlier leaks and had "obviously" been concerned by them. But he said he would not discuss the possible causes of the December mud slide until the Tennessee investigators completed their probe of the incident. At the same time, he sought to assure the committee that the TVA "will do a first rate job of correcting the spill" and helping affected area residents -- including those of the three houses destroyed in the flood -- recover.

In testimony, the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy charged that TVA opted to install a $480,000 dredge cell in the dike as a response to the earlier seepages instead of spending $5 million on a liner designed to seal off the retention pool. The group said TVA also rejected the $25 million option of switching to dry ash collection at the site.

Boxer also pledged to establish federal standards for the handling of coal ash, which the EPA has said does not have high enough levels of heavy metals and other toxic substances to be regulated as hazardous waste.

Noting that fly ash contains arsenic and a range of heavy metal substances, Boxer said EPA "inaction had allowed this enormous volume of toxic material to go largely unregulated."

In written testimony, EPA said its testing in the Emory and Clinch rivers since Dec. 22 had detected heavy metals from the coal ash but showed that they did not exceed federal safety standards.