Feb 7 2019
01:16 pm

Press release...

WASHINGTON (Feb. 7, 2019) – Congressmen Tim Burchett (TN-02) and Steve Cohen (TN-09) today wrote Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) President William D. Johnson demanding answers about TVA’s announcement that ratepayers might have to pay for the misdeeds of the contractor it used for cleanup work at its Kingston plant following the nation’s worst coal ash spill. See their letter here.

According to the Knoxville News Sentinel, TVA hired Jacobs Engineering, who later admitted that it lied to workers about the level of risk to which they were ultimately exposed, and struck a deal to pay legal bills for lawsuits Jacobs defends relating to the cleanup.

“TVA’s congressionally mandated mission is to improve the quality of life in the Valley through the integrated management of the region’s resources,” said the Congressmen in their letter. “Regrettably, it seems that TVA’s irresponsible actions have achieved the opposite effect -- more than 40 workers have died, including at least two TVA employees, and more than 400 are sick.”

Treehouse's picture

I'll give them credit

Good job.

JaHu's picture

Agreed! It's not right that

It's not right that Jacobs Engineering can buy their way out of criminal actions. Hasn't many workers become very ill because of their involvement in the clean-up? Now they want to flip the bill on to TVA's customers leaving them basically unscathed finacially.
A lot of times I'm critical of Burchett, but I like what he's doing here. I just hope he carries through with this investigation and gets it properly resolved. It will be a good test for him as a Jr member of Congress.

captainkona's picture


It's good that we have at least two that have the fortitude to confront this. This Bush-era protection of contractors that knowingly cause irreparable harm has to stop.

fischbobber's picture

TVA's mandate

TVA has a five point mandate.

Flood Control.


Energy production.


Economic development.

The Kingston Plant mishap wasn't a violation of TVA's federal mandate. I would hope it was a violation of laws at the state, federal and local level, but in the most basic sense, in terms of TVA's mandate, the Kingston incident was a screw-up. Just a massive screw-up. You can thank Marvin Runyon (may he rot in hell) for all this, but I digress. At any rate, I would certainly opine that TVA headquarters should be in the headwaters and that the culture change back to a day when TVA was run like a government agency needs to happen now. But let's be clear on this. TVA's mandate is clear and direct. Obfuscating blame to some warm fuzzy mist-mash isn't serving anyone's interest. Get some career civil servants who understand how government agencies run and fix this. Political hacks commitment to paying blood money to private contractors needs to end. TVA needs to be run like a government agency, not a for profit business.

barker's picture

Not Runyon's fault alone

The coal ash spill wasn't Runyon's fault -- it was the result of five decades of makeshift engineering.

When the plant was built, a sluice carried coal ash to Swan Pond Creek, which runs behind the plant. Because of Watts Bar Dam, the creek was (and is) more of a deep cove off the Emory River than a stream. The ash was dumped into the embayment during the first few years of operation, but this was the largest coal-fired plant in the world and it piled up quickly.

TVA decided to build a dike in the embayment to keep the coal ash from filling the creek channel. Note that I said it was IN the embayment. Behind the dike, where the ash was piling up, the water was about four feet deep. Over the years, as more ash piled up, TVA used the dike as the foundation of one side of a roughly square ash pond. Occasionally, an engineer would warn that the pond wasn't sound and that the dike wasn't meant to be a foundation, but nothing was done. When the pond blew out, it was at the corner where the dike met one of the other walls built of coal ash.

The spill can't be blamed on any one person. It was a collective failure of generations of TVA managers and engineers. At least, that's what reading through 26,000 pages of TVA documents the year after the spill taught me.

fischbobber's picture


I was wondering if I could sucker you into giving up the facts.

It goes back to Chili Dean?

barker's picture

Before Chili

You're aiming too high. These kinds of decisions were made well below the board level. Ash disposal was an afterthought, and no engineer actually wanted anything to do with it. It's the engineering equivalent of being a stable boy.

Here's how I've always thought of TVA's approach: A guy decides he's going to buy a wood stove. He figures out the right sized stove for the square footage of his house, then buys and installs it. He measures the stove and buys seasoned firewood cut to the right length. He stockpiles kindling and a stack of newspapers. He lights a fire and keeps it going and the house is warm and everybody's happy. Then it comes time to clean out the ash and he realizes he hadn't given ash disposal one thought, so he improvises by dumping it in the woods behind the house.

Anyway, that's the sense I got when I was reporting on the spill.

fischbobber's picture


When my son was in Webelos I helped our scout troop with a TVA engineer. We talked about the various things that could be done with the ash, from building roads to processing out the iron and using it in concrete. Near as I recall, it wasn't done because no one ordered it done. TVA is no longer an outcome based organization. It has become a budget based, low cost business model of a dying machine. Congress controls TVA, and Knoxville has been getting the short end of the stick for quite some time. There was no excuse for that ash to be sitting where it was, with no purpose.

I play a board game (Axis and Allies) with another chemical engineer in the private sector. He made a damn good living designing scrubbers for coal stacks in the pre-fracking years. He was very sensitive to the obvious problems that faced the coal industry. He now sells this same ash from the private and public sector to private customers looking for alternatives to the materials currently being used in the road building and cast stone industries. It's what the industry, and particularly TVA, should have been doing to begin with. I look at this shit and say, "Hey guys, Wha"d you think was going to happen?"

I always thought that the culture change sucked the life out of TVA. It was one thing when they had to deal with the other four doctrines when there was a clash or arising issue. It became another when Reagan sent Runyon, grabbed them by the balls and said "Here's how it's going to be now."I see most of TVA, what's left to look at in Knoxville, as demoralized and functioning at a chronically depressed state.And then I look at how they're run, whose running them, shutdowns, lack of focus and vision from the top, and I ask myself, "What'd you think was going to happen?"

barker's picture

Congress and TVA

Congress most definitely does NOT control TVA. TVA is an independent federally-owned corporation, and none of its money comes from Congress. And if it's not in the budget, Congress doesn't care. In fact, at a 2009 hearing of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing that I covered for KNS, U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer apologized for not keeping a closer eye on TVA.

fischbobber's picture


I thought Congress controlled both the board and the direction TVA could go (clean energy, rates, and direction of the agency). While TVA was cut out of the federal budget years ago, I thought congress maintained oversight. What am I missing from the mandate? How exactly does this work and who has the final say, the people of the valley or Congress.

barker's picture


The president appoints the board, and confirmation is rote. (Shameless self-promotion: Years ago my reporting forced the resignation of board member Don DePriest.)

The board of directors, not Congress or ratepayers, sets policy for TVA.

Congress is supposed to oversee TVA, but the reality is that they don't do anything unless they absolutely have to. That's why Boxer apologized at the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing on the ash spill I covered in 2009.

The reason Congress doesn't provide much oversight is that TVA is entirely self-funded through power rates (customers in the Valley). As I said before, if it's not in the budget, nobody in Washington cares. I once wrote a guest column for the Wall Street Journal arguing that TVA's non-power programs be shifted back to the federal budget so that Congress would provide more oversight. For some reason, nobody listened.

fischbobber's picture

Power grid

So who built the power grid and who cut back on the maintenance budget? I delivered to a substation for a while, roughly around the time of that big blackout in the northeast. I was asking about our grid and apparently, sometime in the late 1900's we started allowing our power grid to go to decline. I'm wondering if this situation has improved or worsened. Between the Russians, the grid, the grids we're connected to and everything else that could go wrong, just how at risk are we for a blackout?

Who makes sure TVA follows its mandate? Do they even know what the mandate is?

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