TVA is still trying to compute the millions it will take to clean up the environment, and I'm not even talking about the ash spill at the Kingston Steam Plant.
The agency has suffered a body blow with the ash spill, but a federal judge in North Carolina has ruled that TVA coal-fired plants contribute to air pollution in that state and has ordered equipment installed to reduce it.
TVA now faces massive lawsuits in Kingston, clean-up costs there, and now the cost of installing and maintaining scrubbers on an accelerated basis. The total cost will be massive, and unless some federal funds are forthcoming, there is only one place they can go get the money—the ratepayers.
None of these costs will produce any additional power, but they will produce a financial strain that could delay construction of any new generating facilities.
The decision in North Carolina could have been a lot worse. The attorney general sued over 11 coal-fired plants, but the judge limited action to the four he deemed contributors to North Carolina pollution: Bull Run, Kingston, and John Sevier in Tennessee and Widow's Creek in Alabama. TVA has already been installing scrubbers on a construction schedule at the four plants. What they really lost in the decision is time and flexibility.
On a voluntary basis, they could have done them on their own schedule. TVA's schedule for completing John Sevier was the end of 2015. The judge says get it done by December 2011. Widow's Creek has to be done by 2013. The decision will increase construction costs in the near term to speed up installation or the agency faces cutting back usage at the coal-fired plants until they are finished.
TVA is required under the order to operate the pollution-control equipment any time the plant is in use—regardless. TVA also has to report progress to the judge every six months. The reasonable half-a-loaf decision may make it hard for TVA to appeal and win.
The massive new costs in the coal-fired plants come at a time when the TVA board is considering building a multi-million dollar nuclear plant.
The question for the board now is how to build badly needed new nuclear generating plants when they will have to figure out how to pay for cleaning up these problems in the coal-fired plant division.
You can also expect questions being raised about TVA's competence to build and operate a nuclear plant when they seem unable to deal with ashes at a coal-fired plant they have been operating for decades.
The millions required for clean-up and the millions required for a new nuclear plant are to come from an agency that has had the millstone of massive debt hanging around from colossal mistakes during the 1970s.
It is especially troubling at a time when America is looking for alternative energy sources and the Obama administration would be receptive to an FDR-created entity to launch new energy initiatives. Imagine a debt-free TVA launching a massive solar energy initiative in the Valley to be a demonstration project for the nation.
But TVA is mired in debt, appears to be less than competent, and faces massive new expenditures. It is a lost opportunity that is almost as heartbreaking as the environmental damage they have caused.
There are those who object to TVA getting a government bailout. But our congressional delegation needs to go to the federal treasury and get the money to clean up the damage in Kingston and to get those scrubbers on the coal fired plants to reduce air pollution. Air pollution is a multi-state problem that requires a multi-state solution.
If the original TVA mission has slipped to the point that it is merely a federal power company... if TVA is not a unique agency capable of contributing to the national energy solutions we need... if TVA cannot be a demonstration for the national power industry... then a final question is inevitable.
Why does it still exist?