Audit finds Tennessee Valley Authority misled on ash spill disaster
The Tennessee Valley Authority's Inspector General released a critical audit this week on the federal company's response to last December's massive ash spill disaster at its Kingston power plant in eastern Tennessee's Roane County.
The incident involved a failure in a coal ash containment pond that released more than a billion gallons of toxic waste into a nearby community and river.
The interim report finds that TVA:
* failed to implement the National Incident Management System in accordance with a Homeland Security Presidential Directive, which hampered communications and delayed emergency response following the spill;
* released inaccurate and inconsistent information to the media; and
* failed to communicate claims policies and decisions to victims of the spill in a timely manner.
TVA generally agrees with the report's findings, but it takes issue with the charge of widespread inaccuracies in its media statements.
The IG's report points to a number of these inaccuracies, including a dramatic initial underestimate of the amount of ash spilled, an incorrect statement that no dead fish were found downstream of the spill, and TVA's reworking of its coal ash description to say it consists primarily of "inert material not harmful to the environment."
TVA responds to those charges in the audit report. "We respectfully disagree with the description of information being inaccurate or inconsistent 'in many cases,' given the level of media inquiries, number of statements, interviews, briefings, etc, that was being handled; although 'in several cases' the initial information was incorrect," it says.
But as it turns out, the IG didn't even capture the full extent of the company's efforts to downplay the disaster's dangers.
Earlier this year, we reported on how TVA misled the public about the radiation threat from the spilled ash. The company claimed that the ash was no more dangerous in terms of radioactivity than low-sodium table salt, but subsequent testing by independent scientists found significantly greater radiation risks than the company acknowledged.
The audit report does not include any discussion of this.
The IG recommends that TVA consider establishing a "clearly defined protocol" requiring verification from more than one source before releasing a statement to the media. It also calls on the company to work with local residents to improve communications related to the damage claims process.
Meanwhile, TVA has won a protective order to keep secret "sensitive information" related to the spill in the seven multimillion-dollar lawsuits that have been filed since the disaster, the Knoxville (Tenn.) Metro Pulse reports. The order applies to trade secrets and proprietary information.
(Image of December 2008 TVA ash spill from the company's aerial footage)
Sue is the editorial director of Facing South and the Institute for Southern Studies.