Tennessee Valley Authority Found Responsible for 2008 Coal Ash Disaster
by Katie Greenhaw
Aug 27, 2012
Last week, a federal court held the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), the nation's largest public utility, responsible for a massive 2008 coal ash spill near Kingston, TN, that released 5.4 million cubic yards of sludge into the surrounding community. Coal ash can contain arsenic, lead, chromium, and other toxic substances, which many Kingston area residents say contaminated their properties. The decision could provide compensation for many harmed by the spill, but better public protections to prevent these types of spills are still needed.
Caused by the failure and collapse of an embankment holding wet coal ash, the huge spill covered over 300 acres of land with toxic sludge and is expected to require over $1 billion in cleanup costs. Investigations and court battles involving hundreds of plaintiffs followed the spill, but TVA’s unique status as a “federal corporation” placed limits on liability. Congress established the TVA in 1930s, but the utility is now run like a private company and financed by revenue from power sales, not federal funding.
In 2011, U.S. District Judge Thomas Varlan of the Eastern District of Tennessee ruled that TVA was protected from liability for its coal ash management policies and its decisions to keep the wet coal ash storage system running. However, the court ruled that TVA could be liable for other decisions that caused the embankment failure and resulting spill.
Varlan's ruling last week reinforced his earlier decision. He concluded that while the substance of TVA’s policies and procedures were protected, the utility is liable for the negligent performance of those policies, which caused the embankment to fail. "[H]ad TVA followed its own mandatory policies, procedures, and practices, the subsurface issues underlying the failure . . . would have been investigated, addressed, and potentially remedied before the catastrophic failure of December 22, 2008," he concluded.
Property owners involved in the lawsuit will now have to prove they are entitled to compensation in their individual claims against TVA.
The ruling is an important step in ensuring that those harmed by the spill can find some measure of justice, but the stories of the victims are also reminders that after-the-fact compensation is no substitute for preventative measures that protect the public from harm in the first place. Oversight of coal ash disposal is currently left to the states, where regulation varies widely and is often weak. As the TVA spill demonstrated, even existing mandatory procedures are not always followed.
Public interest groups and concerned citizens have made the case for more preventative measures and continue to urge the government to issue more protective federal standards for coal ash. Unfortunately, comprehensive federal rules have been derailed and attacked by industry groups and some policymakers in Washington, and the outcome of the debate around coal ash remains uncertain.
Image courtesy of Tennessee Valley Authorityback to Blog