A publication of Appalachian Voices


A publication of Appalachian Voices


TVA Faces Criticism Over Coal Ash, Transparency

A community forum discusses closure of a fossil plant

In May, Anderson County, Tenn., residents discuss TVA’s upcoming closure of the Bull Run Fossil Plant. Photo: John Todd Waterman.

The Tennessee Valley Authority, the federally owned utility that serves most of the state and parts of six others, is facing a litany of lawsuits and problems. On May 8, three East Tennessee municipalities filed a lawsuit against TVA and its contractor Jacobs Engineering. The local governments accuse TVA of misleading the public on the dangers of coal ash in the aftermath of the 7.3 million-ton Kingston coal ash spill in 2008.

Roane County and the cities of Kingston and Harriman accuse TVA and Jacobs Engineering of concealing a coal ash ingredient list, destroying and tampering with evidence during cleanup, and covering up these transgressions for more than a decade. TVA denies any wrongdoing.

“The defendants conspired to keep secret from the public, their neighbors, the constituents of the fly ash and that the fly ash contained radioactive material, all of which is harmful to human health and the plaintiffs and their citizenry,” reads the lawsuit.

“Jacobs colluded and conspired with the TVA to commit the same transgressions to conceal documentary and video evidence,” the lawsuit continues. “Defendants have spent large quantities of ratepayer monies attempting to hide the truth regarding the ‘safety’ of fly ash, both in public relations campaigns and attorneys’ fees defending their unlawful behavior.”

This is the latest in a string of lawsuits against TVA and Jacobs for their handling of the 2008 environmental disaster. According to an ongoing USA TODAY Network-Tennessee investigation, of the roughly 900 workers who helped clean up the spill, at least 40 have died and more than 400 reportedly became sick. On Nov. 7, 2018, a federal judge ruled in favor of 73 of the workers or their survivors against Jacobs, allowing them to seek financial compensation for medical expenses. In late April, a judge denied Jacobs’ appeal.

Whistleblowers at two TVA power plants in East Tennessee told USA TODAY in early 2019 that they are often exposed to toxic coal ash and flue gas without masks, respirators or bodysuits. Photos and videos that workers submitted to the news organization between February and April reveal thick coatings of coal ash on surfaces in the Kingston and Bull Run plants, and workers stated that they are not provided with decontamination stations.

In late April, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that TVA does not have governmental immunity to prevent injury lawsuits related to power production. The ruling stems from a 2013 incident in which a fisherman was killed and nearly decapitated by a power line TVA crews were attempting to raise out of the water.

TVA Transparency

Tennessee state and federal lawmakers are seeking more transparency from the Tennessee Valley Authority. The TVA Transparency Act of 2019, introduced by U.S. Rep. Tim Burchett (R-TN) in January, would require the monopoly utility to open board committee meetings to the public, provide notice of the meetings beforehand and make meeting minutes publicly available. The bill awaited decision in committee as of May 23.

On April 30, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee signed a resolution in support of the bill, which also received near-unanimous support in the state House and Senate.

“It is vitally important to the citizens of Tennessee that TVA, as an entity created and protected by Congress, should conduct their business in the open and be as transparent as possible,” reads the resolution.

According to the Chattanooga Times Free Press, TVA donated nearly half a million in 2017 to the Utility Air Regulatory Group, a lobbying firm that has pushed to ease emission standards from coal-fired power plants. TVA has donated more than $7 million in ratepayer dollars to the firm since 2001.

In April, House Democrats announced that they were looking into ties between the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the UARG. They suspect the EPA breached ethics rules when regulators attempted to roll back the Clean Air Act. The rollback would benefit EPA officials’ former clients, including TVA. Shortly after the investigation was announced, seven utilities including Duke Energy and Dominion Energy divested from the UARG, and the lobbying firm dissolved in May.

On May 14, ratepayer advocacy groups including Appalachian Voices, the publisher of this newspaper, called on the TVA Office of the Inspector General to investigate whether TVA’s investments into UARG were a violation of the utility’s policy. The groups claim that TVA unjustly used ratepayer dollars to help the lobbying firm fight the Clean Air Act.

A press release from the U.S. House Committee on Energy and Commerce states that the EPA’s agenda regarding the Clean Air Act appears “remarkably similar” to the agenda advanced by the firm, leading the committee to suspect that EPA officials were “changing Agency policies and programs to benefit former clients.”

TVA responded that they do not participate in litigation performed by the lobbying firm, and that they only use the firm to help themselves understand and comply with technical Clean Air Act regulations.

Municipal utility Memphis Light, Gas and Water could be looking to end its agreement to purchase power from TVA. A recent study showed that the Memphis utility — TVA’s largest customer — could save up to $333 million per year and have cleaner energy by developing its own power supply. If the utility gives TVA the required five-year notice in 2019, it will have until 2024 to create its own supply.

In Meigs County, Tenn., TVA is dealing with controversy from its planned “Project Viper” systems control facility. The 167-acre facility would replace an older building in Chattanooga. Although county officials have endorsed the project, local landowners have filed lawsuits attempting to block TVA’s use of eminent domain to gain access to their property for surveys, according to the Cleveland Daily Banner.

Through one of the surveys, archeologists with TVA discovered “potential cultural” resources, the Banner reports, and the utility moved the planned route for transmissions lines. While TVA has not disclosed the nature of the items found, local residents suspect the rock formations may be Native American grave sites. TVA has begun to fell trees and place markers along the planned routes.


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2019 — June/July

2019 — June/July