You might think that the inside of a TVA plant building would be a Disney-esque shrine of retro-futurism, filled with pneumatic tubes transferring coded messages between managers, all controlled by super-efficient coal powered AutoMen. But, as a matter of fact, the administrative building of the Kingston Fossil plant has more of a municipal flavor to it than an Epcot one. Foam drop ceilings and thin gray carpet abound here.
Still, getting in to see Ron Hall, plant manager only since last March, seems about as difficult as getting past Uncle Walt’s defenses. This is especially true if you have to go through PR point man Gil Francis, who, between frustrating-sounding phone calls, will tell you where to sit, how long to stay there, and why you should pay attention to his directions, all the while talking about the journalists who tried to get in without first going through the proper channels, and just how far they got.
Finally, though, the curtain is pulled back, and there, in a nondescript medium-sized office is a fairly regular looking guy—he’s got a Mike Ditka mustache and he’s wearing a red plaid shirt—with the progressive blog RoaneViews up on one of his computer monitors. The blog has been following the spill situation closely since the very beginning, criticizing TVA and urging media calm in equal measure.
“Somebody sent me the link this morning,” Hall says. “I thought I should take a look at it.”
Hall’s an engineer by trade. He’s worked with TVA for 18 years, since he was 25 years old and lived in Chattanooga, “in the gas side of the business,” moving himself up through the ranks. It’s his job to oversee the day-to-day operations of the plant, coordinating all its various departments and making sure everything is running smoothly.
But things haven’t been going smoothly. So that’s not his job anymore, at least for the time being. There’s a reason Hall’s been one of the most visible people in this mess, showing up at every meeting, leading media tours, dealing with the various politicians who’ve shown up in the wake of the spill. That’s his job now.
“Is there a plant here?” he says. His underlings have been dealing with most of the regular plant operations ever since he flew in from his family’s Colorado Christmas celebration the day after the spill.
“I was back in Tennessee by 9 p.m.,” says Hall, coordinating the emergency command centers in Kingston, Chattanooga, and Georgia, two days before Christmas. “I have a 9-year-old, a 7-year-old, and a 2-year-old. The 2-year-old is probably the one who was affected the most.”
Since the spill, his workload-—overseeing the cleanup effort and all the other aforementioned politicking, has increased his work day by about 50 percent.
“Before the slide, I was working 10, 12 hours a day, just dealing with the plant,” Hall says, beginning with a series of morning meetings, followed by more meetings and all the daily troubleshooting he needed to deal with. “Now, it’s averaging about 14 to 16 hours a day.”
Hall lives in Soddy Daisy, between Dayton and Chattanooga, more than an hour drive away from Kingston. He stays in hotels sometimes, but most of the time he makes the long drive.
“I find the drive home relaxing, to be completely honest,” after the frustrations of dealing with such a big mess, he says. “If I stay in a hotel, it still takes me an hour or two to wind down. So I figure I might as well do it in the car, so I can see my family.”
Is all this time doing anything for a utility that may have irreparably damaged its reputation in this town?
“There are folks who said that, ‘you knew it was coming.’ I did not know it was coming,” he says. “TVA can’t just go out and do what it wants to do. There are folks who think that it can, but it can’t.”
Hall, like Mason, points to TDEC’s involvement as the appointed legal monitor, one that he says is a neutral party. But that could soon change if regulations for coal ash change.
“I really can’t speculate on what could happen after this,” he says, but in preparation TVA has hired a consulting firm, ACEOM, to do failure analysis and, perhaps, recommend a new solution. “They’ll be doing a lot of engineering core drills and samples to try to identify what the cause was.”
While not willing to say that he believes coal ash should be regulated as a hazardous waste, he will say that things will probably change around Kingston.
“I would be very surprised if we chose wet storage at Kingston,” he says. “The regulations have changed... I’m not sure you could even get a permit for a wet one without liners. I can pretty confidently state that we’re not going to have a 65-foot wet cell by the time it’s over.”