Let TVA Pay Damages

The coal industry needs to start paying hidden costs; it can start in Kingston

When TVA spokesman Gil Francis told reporters fly ash spilled in Kingston contained "nothing hazardous," he was being misleading. The Environmental Protection Agency decided in 2000 that fly ash should be categorized as a hazardous material, but industry lobbyists convinced them instead to define special criteria for coal combustion products. They never did that either.

Francis was correct in a technical sense, but not in the context most of us understood. Francis later claimed engineers who inspected the Kingston ash pond used misleading language in describing leaks in the dike. Last winter, engineers warned TVA of the exact danger that lead to the dike rupture: saturation followed by a freeze. Engineers did not mislead anyone; only Francis did that.

Tom Kilgore, head of TVA, promised to do right by the impacted community, but what does that mean? Francis' early downplaying of the dangers may have kept some from taking necessary precautions, and his remarks seem more in tune with TVA attorneys than the community's well being. Of course, legal jackals have descended on Roane County from near and far, and lawsuits are piling up faster than estimates of clean-up costs.

Damages awarded by courts will be paid by TVA's only source of income, its rate-payers, so it is surely in our best interest for Kilgore to make good on his promise. All the docks ruined by the shock wave should be repaired at TVA's expense, as should other property damaged by the spill. The muck itself should be dredged out of both the Emory River and the coves so as to minimize release of toxins into the environment.

So far TVA's on-site response has focused on containing the debris, a sensible first step, but they are also contemplating containment as a long-term solution, turning the buried cove into some sort of park. Between the rise and fall of the lake and the flow of rainwater down Swan Pond Creek, soluble toxins will leach out and the mud will erode. Keeping it where it spilled is certainly cheaper than trucking it away, but that kind of cost cutting led to this disaster. To limit hauling costs, TVA could return ash to the storage pond from which it escaped and give it a sturdier retaining wall. However it is done, the contours of the cove must be restored, otherwise the Swan Pond community will be permanently changed and the steep damages claimed in early lawsuits justified.

Those whose homes were ruined deserve significant compensation, but the disruption to the rest of the community can be temporary. Despite the lists of toxins contained in fly ash, the stuff is mostly mud, and dilution can be the solution. If TVA scoops and dredges up as much of the ash as possible, rain will take care of the rest. Watts Bar had significant restrictions on consumption of fish before this spill, and a thorough recovery of ash can return it to that same compromised state. This year's recreation season is probably lost, but the water can be safe again for swimmers.

Clean-up will cost millions, probably hundreds of millions. Sen. Corker says the federal government should not contribute, an odd stance for someone whose constituents are mostly TVA rate-payers, but Rep. Wamp's thoughts are even more strange. He thinks it's a natural disaster and not an act of negligence. Wrong about that, he is right that costs should extend past TVA. The federal government appoints TVA's board, and EPA, goaded by coal lobbyists, neglected to draft sensible guidelines for coal ash.

The coal industry has operated with hidden costs for too long. Their latest gambit is underground carbon storage. You know how corrosive carbonated beverages are, and the same acid will eat away rocks holding carbon underground. Just like ash piles, carbon repositories will be disasters in waiting. Coal should cancel this year's ads and dedicate the money to cleaning their ash. Congress should smash the illusion of cheap coal with taxes and fees that expose its hidden costs.