The Tennessee Valley Authority gave "inaccurate and inconsistent information" to the public and initially failed to properly involve local emergency responders after a coal ash pond spill in Kingston last December, according to an internal audit released Tuesday.
TVA's inspector general criticized the federal utility for not conducting risk studies or developing complete emergency plans around its coal plants as it does around its nuclear and hydroelectric power plants.
As a result, TVA didn't comply with federal rules for responding to an emergency when more than 1 billion gallons of fly ash spilled out of a broken storage pond at TVA's Kingston Fossil Plant.
The Dec. 22, 2008, accident was one of the worst industrial spills in U.S. history and covered nearly 300 acres of land and river with a potentially toxic brew of fly and bottom ash. TVA estimates it will cost up to $975 million to clean up and restore the damaged area, not including any legal liability for the utility.
Despite the scope of the damage, the inspector general report chided TVA officials for trying to minimize the potential harm of the spill.
• On Christmas Eve, TVA stated its environmental team had not encountered any dead fish. But two days later, there were reports of hundreds of dead fish floating downstream of the plant.
• In a "talking point" paper prepared for the news media, TVA personnel changed "catastrophic" to "sudden accidental release" and reworked the description of fly ash to call it simply an "inert material not harmful to the environment."
TVA President Tom Kilgore later conceded that the Kingston spill was, in fact, a catastrophe. Environmental scientists from Appalachian State University and Duke University, along with the staff of the U.S. House Subcommittee on Water Resources and the Environment, reported that the fly ash contained elevated levels of toxic metals that have the potential to cause a number of environmental and health problems.
"TVA's actions for responding quickly to media and public inquiry resulted in releases of inaccurate and inconsistent information and subsequent public criticism which caused reputational harm," the inspector general said about the way TVA provided public information about the spill.
Sarah McCoin, a Harriman resident and an organizer of the grassroots group Tennessee Coal Ash Survivors Network, said the audit highlights the frustration of those affected by the spill.
"The IG's report does not surprise me and is exactly what so many of us have known and experienced since Dec. 22, 2008," she said. "It is a horrific shame."
Claiming TVA management consistently failed to provide the community with accurate information and "twisted the truth," Ms. McCoin said the community now has little faith in the federal utility.
"As we approach the six-month anniversary of the disaster, very little has been accomplished to restore our community. There has been no restoration of property values, and numerous families remain devastated," she said.
Matt Landon is another TVA critic who serves as the volunteer staff leader for United Mountain Defense, an environmental group that arrived at the Kingston spill site 14 hours after the accident. Mr. Landon said TVA's information "is very inaccurate and inadequate.
"TVA has continually tried to downplay the significance of this disaster, and the people in Kingston are still being misled," he said.
The inspector general report did praise TVA and other state and federal agencies for trying to respond quickly to the accident during a holiday week and for pledging to restore the area and pay reparations to any damaged party. But initial confusion over how TVA will buy or settle claims may have driven up the number and costs of the claims, according to the TVA audit.
"TVA has responded effectively to victims in the affected area," the report said, noting that agency personnel have met with more than 600 affected families and bought dozens of damaged properties. "However, failure to communicate the claims policy and decisions in a timely manner increased settlement expectations for some."
Auditors also noted that TVA officials in charge of the handling the response to the ash spill initially didn't know proper federal rules for emergency response and "spoke a different language" with local emergency responders as a result.
On Christmas Day -- three days after the ash spill -- TVA hired O'Brien's Response Management to bring the agency into compliance with emergency response rules. O'Brien stayed for 19 days through Jan. 12 and was paid $510,000 to help comply with rules TVA should have known already, according to the IG.
In response to the audit, TVA management pledged to upgrade emergency response procedures to comply with Department of Homeland Security directives. TVA also is improving the procedures used in its media relations program to communicate information about an accident such as the Kingston ash spill, officials said.
Pam Sohn has been reporting or editing Chattanooga news for 25 years. A Walden’s Ridge native, she began her journalism career with a 10-year stint at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. She came to the Chattanooga Times Free Press in 1999 after working at the Chattanooga Times for 14 years. She has been a city editor, Sunday editor, wire editor, projects team leader and assistant lifestyle editor. As a reporter, she also has covered the police, ...