published Thursday, October 6th, 2011

TVA manager testifies for ash spill plaintiffs

By BILL POOVEY

Associated Press Writer

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The Tennessee Valley Authority wanted to blame its disastrous 2008 ash spill on circumstances it could not control, a TVA senior manager told a judge who is deciding if TVA was negligent and is liable for damages.

In a recorded deposition played Wednesday at TVA’s ash spill trial, Melissa Hedgecoth said TVA’s claim that slime in an ash storage pond at the Kingston power plant caused a dike to break was a “little bit bogus.”

Hedgecoth said when TVA hired a consultant to identify the cause of the spill, “they were hoping they could find something outside of TVA’s control.”

Hedgecoth, senior manager of the utility’s coal combustion byproducts group, has become a TVA whistleblower and said she has filed a federal workplace retaliation complaint since having disagreements with other TVA managers.

The groundwater monitoring system at the Kingston plant’s coal ash ponds used piezometers and monitoring wells. Piezometers provide groundwater pressure readings, while monitoring wells also can allow water to drain.

Hedgecoth said a “tech would just go read it (piezometers) that didn’t know anything, turn the data into somebody else, and it would go into this email Neverland. But nobody was really watching.”

The first witness called by TVA attorneys, Thomas Settles, testified that as ash hauling foreman at Kingston he watched the operation closely, including making inspections four times a week, and noticed no signs of seepage or other problems in the months before and even the day before the Dec. 22, 2008 spill.

Settles, who retired in June, said he lives just 2 miles from the Kingston Plant and sometimes went to inspect on his days off after heavy rains, as he did the day before the spill.

He said the ash storage operation “was part of me. It was like my kid.”

Responding to questions by TVA attorney Jim Chase, Settles said his inspections Mondays and Thursdays on foot took about three hours and on Tuesdays and Wednesdays he inspected for about two hours from his truck.

When plaintiff attorney Jeff Friedman during cross-examination asked Settles how he could make that claim when he had said in a pre-trial deposition that the inspections took 30 or 40 minutes, Settles said,”I don’t know.”

TVA attorneys planned to call other witnesses Thursday.

Attorneys for property owners whose lawsuits contend TVA failed to adequately train employees and failed to heed warnings about problems with the ash storage have said during the 12-day trial that TVA to avoid liability would not allow a consultant who prepared a report on the spill to consider any management and maintenance shortcomings as factors.

A report by an engineering consultant hired by TVA after the spill said the dikes supporting the ash landfill were on the verge of failing long before they collapsed and sent tons of toxin-laden muck into the Emory River and onto the surrounding rural residential landscape about 40 miles west of Knoxville.

The study showed the ash storage pond dikes that themselves contain ash had been on the verge of failure for some time and a thin layer of ash “slime” deep in the pile and heavy rains caused pressure and the collapse.

TVA is spending $1.2 billion to clean up the spill of more than 5 million cubic yards of ash.

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