kilgore.jpgAt yesterday's Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing on the spill of more than 1 billion gallons of coal ash from a Tennessee Valley Authority power plant in Eastern Tennessee, CEO Tom Kilgore faced hard questions -- and  criticism for his lack of responses.

"I feel like Mr. Kilgore didn't really give us answers to much of anything," Melinda Hillman, one of five affected residents who attended the hearing, said afterwards.

Chair Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) set the tough tone in her opening, when she had assistants hold up large photos of flooded homes and ruined land, and charts listing toxic contaminants in coal ash and their health effects. She entered into the official record a newspaper article reporting that the failed dam had previous problems but TVA rejected needed upgrades as too costly.

She even passed around a quart jar of murky gray ash sludge that the residents brought her.

"This isn't harmless mud," Boxer said.

Speaking next, Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) -- one of the Senate's biggest recipients of energy money and an outspoken skeptic of global warming -- tried to soften the tone.

He lauded the birth of Boxer's third grandchild. He welcomed the committtee's two new members, Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Mark Udall (D-Colo.) Tom Udall (D-N.M.). He declared -- incorrectly -- that air, soil and water tests from the disaster site "meet EPA standards." And he directed his ire at those he saw as the real bad actors in the Tennessee catastrophe: "extremist groups exploiting the incident to further their own political objectives -- eradicating the use of coal in this country."

Unbowed, Boxer continued to press her case against Kilgore -- who showed either an astonishing lack of knowledge about some of his company's most pressing problems or an unwillingness to admit them.

Asked how many ash ponds TVA had in use, for example, Kilgore said he didn't know. He also didn't know why the company opted for dry storage at some facilities and wet at others, or that TVA had previously fought federal environmental enforcement efforts. And he said he was unaware that a 2007 federal assessment documented three TVA sites with proven damage from coal ash pollution.

Kilgore also demonstrated what appeared to be a basic misunderstanding of critical coal waste handling issues. Asked whether he would be willing to utilize the same strict waste-management practices for his ash impoundments that govern landfills for ordinary household trash, he responded that his company was investing hundreds of millions of dollars in new air scrubbers for the Kingston plant.

"That's wonderful, and we all applaud that, but that gives us even more ash," said an exasperated Boxer. "I'm asking about safe disposal of ash."

Kilgore replied noncommittally that TVA would "look at several options."

Also testifying at the hearing were Southern Alliance for Clean Energy Director Stephen Smith and Roane County Emergency Management Director William "Howie" Rose, who pointed out that TVA does not do the same kind of emergency preparation and planning for its coal plants as for its nuclear operations.

Boxer called for federal standards to make sure coal ash is disposed of and stored properly, while Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) said he hoped to turn a "regulatory and management failure" into a "technological development story."

Speaking after the hearing, Smith said he was pleased by Boxer's tough questioning and by the strong interest in the situation shown by Alexander. But he also noted that words are one thing and actions another.

"This was avoidable," Smith said of the catastrophe. "I believe heads need to roll at TVA."