Audit Faults TVA Utility’s Response to Coal Ash Spill in Tennessee

June 18, 2009

Emergency crews’ response to a massive coal ash spill last year was hampered by the Tennessee Valley Authority’s failure to adopt emergency communication procedures recommended by the federal government, the public utility’s internal auditors said.

The report by the TVA’s Inspector General’s Office also faulted the utility for making inaccurate statements to the media and a claims process that delayed reparations to victims. More than 5 million cubic yards of toxic-laden sludge were released into a river and lakeside homes near the Kingston Fossil Plant in the December spill.

The auditors described it as an interim report as cleanup that could end up costing $1 billion continues from a spill that has brought national attention to the potential hazards of coal ash storage across the country.

“TVA management generally agreed with the report and plans to take actions in regards to the recommendations,” Deputy Inspector General Ben Wagner wrote.

The utility’s managers disagreed with how the report described inaccurate statements to the media.

The inspector general sharply criticized the agency’s 11 coal-fired power plants for failing to adopt Homeland Security’s National Incident Management System protocols for emergency communications, which are used by TVA’s nuclear and hydroelectric stations.

Emergency responders with other agencies complained that TVA managers were “speaking a different language” in the key hours after the spill because they were unfamiliar with the protocol’s terms and concepts. Some TVA managers were even scrambling to look up terms on the Internet before consultants were finally hired to straighten things out at a cost of $510,000, the auditors said.

The communications breakdown caused delays in getting environmental data about the ash, in assessing the stability of the remaining dike and in distributing health and safety information to the public, including a 12-hour delay in lifting an evacuation order.

Three homes were destroyed and 23 others were damaged. There were no fatalities or injuries directly from the spill.

The report said the release of inaccurate or inconsistent information caused public criticism and “reputational harm” to the federal agency in the weeks that followed.

TVA misstatements to the media included initial reports that the spill was less than half its actual size. There were inconsistent statements on whether the Kingston dike failure was connected to earlier leaks.

Emily Reynolds, TVA’s senior vice president for communications, wrote the auditors that “we respectfully disagree with the description of information being inaccurate and inconsistent ‘in many cases,’ … although in ‘several cases’ the initial information was incorrect.”

The inspector general’s auditors softened their critique in recognition of the “tremendous amount of media inquiries” TVA had to deal with from the spill.

As of April 7, TVA had settled claims for more than 70 tracts encompassing 225 acres for about $20 million and is evaluating others. But TVA also has rejected 189 claims for damage, turned down 135 others for loss of property value and deferred 18 more until a long-term cleanup plan is developed.

“TVA has responded effectively to victims in the affected areas,” the inspector general wrote. “However, failure to communicate the claims policy and decisions in a timely manner increased settlement expectations for some.”

While TVA managers agreed to improve communications with residents, the inspector general noted, “We recognize that TVA will not be able to satisfy everyone,” including those who have joined a half dozen federal lawsuits against the agency.

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