Front Porch Blog

A heckofa job

By Bill Kovarik

They might as well have said “Tommie, you’re doing a heckofa job” down there in Tennessee cleaning up that nasty coal ash spill.

Chair Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and other senators at the US Senate environment committee looking into the TVA disaster took serious pains to tell Tom Kilgore what a “nice man” he was.

View the hearing on the Senate.gov website

The effusive praise in the hearing Thursday morning Jan. 8 went beyond the standard courtesies afforded witnesses in Senate hearings, perhaps because it was clear that the TVA’s CEO was a relic of a bygone age who would need to be handled with respect and care as he was ushered out the door.

In fact, before he even left the Senate hearing room, Kilgore’s notion that wind energy costs 70 cents per kilowatt hour was flashing by “Twitter” to environmental networks across the country – along with a rebuttal by the American Wind Energy Association. Four to eight cents is the US Department of Energy figure, AWEA noted.

New technology isn’t the only point on which Kilgore is sadly out of touch. By refusing to take responsibility – acknowledging TVA’s role obliquely with “this is not a proud moment” — Kilgore could not have been more obtuse.

In one memorable exchange, Boxer asked about leaving the ash in place with grass seed over it instead of cleaning up the embayment behind Swan Pond Road.

Boxer – You don’t have plans to do this?

Kilgore – We don’t have plans not to.

Boxer – That’s not an answer. That’s not cleanup, just leaving that stuff there. People will never feel safe there. People are smart, they know what’s in it, and they’re going to send grandkids out to play in it? I don’t think so… I think there are a lot of questions about your decision making …

Stephen Smith, Executive Director Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, said that among the many emotions that had gripped the Tennessee Valley in the wake of the disaster, including “fear, frustration and anger,” the most significant of all was betrayal. “This was not a natural disaster,” he said. “This was a man made disaster.“

Perhaps the most interesting moment was Senator James Inhofe’s (R-OK) opening statement, where he warned that “extremist groups” might exploit this “incident” so they can “eradicate the use of coal in this country.” We can only wonder if Inhofe believes that these might be the same “extremists” who he has previously accused of hoaxing the nation about climate change.

The lasting impression is one of chaos. None of the numbers about toxins in the spill – such as how many hundred thousand pounds of arsenic — were remotely solid or acknowledged as accurate, either on the Senate side or among the witnesses.

And despite repeated comparisons to the Exxon Valdez oil spill, a comparison to Three Mile Island seems more apropos. The Exxon Valdez was never seen as the end of the oil industry. This TVA disaster is starting to look like just that for new coal fired power plants, just as Three Mile Island was the end of nuclear power construction.

Maybe the extremists won’t prove to be so extreme after all.