Senate Holds Hearing On Tenn. Coal Ash Spill

Representatives from the Tennessee Valley Authority and state regulators got grilled by the Senate Environment and Public Works committee about last month's coal ash spill in Kingston, Tenn.

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The head of the Tennessee Valley Authority faced tough questions today from a Senate committee. The TVA runs the power plant near Knoxville where billions of gallons of coal ash were spilled last month. The toxic sludge covered 300 hundred acres, destroyed three houses, and polluted a river. NPR's Elizabeth Shogren reports on today's hearing.

SHOGREN: Committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer started off the hearing with some stern words for TVA President Tom Kilgore.

Senator BARBARA BOXER (Democrat, California): We want to work with you, but you've got to clean up your act there, literally.

SHOGREN: She said TVA knew that its coal ash storage system was faulty after smaller spills in 2003 and 2006. But it opted for a minor fix instead of an expensive overall.

Senator BOXER: It's just like if you have a problem with the roof in your house and you take the cheapest solution, which is put a little patch over there, but you ignore the fact that there were some cracks that seemed to be in the roof that were spreading, and then one day, you know, you have a massive flood.

Mr. TOM KILGORE (President, Tennessee Valley Authority): The most expensive solution wasn't chosen. Obviously that looks bad for us. I would like to get the failure investigation complete and know exactly what the cause was.

Senator BOXER: OK.

SHOGREN: Boxer, a Democrat from California, passed around a jar of sludge from the accident and showed huge photos of the coal ash slide and the damage it did to several local homes. She asked Kilgore why he would not commit to restoring two coves in the Emory River that are covered with coal ash from the spill.

Mr. KILGORE: I didn't want to make a promise on that particular one until I know what the best options are for the environment and for the neighbors.

Senator BOXER: But at this time, you have no plans on the books to restore those coves the way they were before, is my point.

Mr. KILGORE: But I also don't have plans not to, Madame Chair.

Senator BOXER: Well that's not an answer.

Mr. KILGORE: OK.

SHOGREN: A new senator, Jeff Merkley, a Democrat from Oregon, questioned Kilgore about the height of the coal ash heap. It was 60 feet high before it collapsed.

Senator JEFF MERKLEY (Democrat, Oregon): Is that a factor at any way in this disaster?

Mr. KILGORE: It could be. I will say this is the only facility we have that is like that where it has a ring dock above ground.

SHOGREN: Several senators questioned why the federal government does not regulate coal ash. Even though it's full of heavy metals like arsenic and mercury, the government does not consider it a hazardous waste. Environmentalists think it should. Stephen Smith of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy testified at the hearing.

Dr. STEPHEN SMITH (Executive Director, Southern Alliance for Clean Energy): The lack of regulation we have right now is unacceptable, and that is one of the reasons why this accident has happened.

SHOGREN: Smith says the federal government should phase out the use of wet storage systems like the one that failed at the TVA plant. Kilgore said that TVA is considering several options including switching all of its six wet storage systems to dry ones. The senators made it clear that this is just the beginning of the renewed attention they plan to give to TVA to try to make it a much cleaner operation. When Republican Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee questioned Kilgore about what TVA is doing to cut air pollution from its plants, Kilgore said he was focused on the recovery effort.

Senator LAMAR ALEXANDER (Republican, Tennessee): But the recovery brings to question the true costs of using coal to make electricity.

SHOGREN: Alexander says at least in the short term, the country is going to have to keep using coal to make electricity. But a lot must be done to make it cleaner and safer. Elizabeth Shogren, NPR News, Washington.

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