Engineer: Warning signs ignored in toxic sludge flood

U. S. Sen. Bob Corker takes a helicopter tour of the site of the Tennessee Valley Authority's fly ash spill on Monday, Jan. 5, 2009 near Harriman, Tenn.

TVA via Knoxville News Sentinel/The AP
Published: Wednesday, January 7, 2009 at 7:24 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 7, 2009 at 7:24 a.m.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. The nation's largest government-run utility ignored two small leaks that could have provided a warning years before a coal ash pond collapsed, flooding a neighborhood with a billion gallons of sludge, a former federal regulator contends.

Jack Spadaro, a retired mining engineer who investigated a 1972 coal waste dam break that killed 125 people in West Virginia, said states have done a poor job monitoring huge ponds of coal ash, which aren't regulated by the federal government.

Three homes were destroyed and 42 parcels of land damaged when one such pond at the Tennessee Valley Authority's Kingston Steam Plant collapsed Dec. 22.

Also on Tuesday, a coalition of environmental groups including the Sierra Club notified TVA it plans to sue the utility on behalf of 40 families, arguing TVA broke federal law by not fully disclosing the extent of spill contamination. A TVA spokesman said the utility would respond in court.

Another environmental group said last week it also plans to sue, and a group of landowners has already filed a lawsuit.

Tennessee uses solid waste landfill regulations for ash ponds, even though the substance in them a mix of water and fly ash, a byproduct of coal-fired power plants behaves more like a liquid when it spills.

"State regulation has failed obviously," said Spadaro, who contends the ponds should be regulated like dams. "I think there needs to be federal regulation of the fly ash and the construction of these reservoirs."

The federal Environmental Protection Agency doesn't regulate the utility ponds because it doesn't consider the coal ash hazardous material, although it can contain trace amounts of heavy metals. Two federal agencies that oversee mining keep an eye on similar waste at coal mines but don't regulate coal-burning power plants.

At the Kingston plant, two small leaks in 2003 and 2006 caught the attention of Tennessee's Department of Environment and Conservation, which asked TVA to provide additional details on the water going into the ponds but didn't require a new storage system.

TVA spokesman Gil Francis said the earlier leaks were not related to last month's spill and were in a different area from the section that TVA officials believe caused the breach.

When the pond wall ripped open Dec. 22, more than one billion gallons of coal ash and water spilled out like a tidal wave, sweeping a home off its foundations and tearing trees out of the ground.

"This is not a typical landfill," said Glen Pugh, program director for Tennessee's division of solid waste management, which regulates the ash ponds.

The ponds on the banks of the Emory River had sides 55 feet above the nearest road and contained more than 145 million gallons of water, according to the TVA. At the time of the spill, piles of ash reached 50 to 60 feet above the water in the ponds, Francis said.

Pugh said TVA applied for a landfill permit in the late 1990s when it decided it needed a new system to handle the ash piling up at the Kingston plant, about 35 miles west of Knoxville.

TVA had to repair the dike in 2003 after the ash started to leak out, Pugh said. He said the leak wasn't much but enough to lead TVA to consider disposing of the ash in a dry form. The utility eventually decided to continue using the pond and Francis said repairs were made based on several recommendations from an independent engineering consultant.

According to a 2008 inspection report, TVA stopped dredging operations in a main pond after the 2003 leak, but continued using a smaller temporary pond while repairs were made. TVA resumed dredging in 2006, only to find ash seeping out of the dike just nine months later.

TVA installed a system to relieve pressure on the walls, and Pugh said it was typical to see small areas of water seeping out of the ponds because of the drains TVA installed.

The state regulators were focused on the effect on the environment, and nothing in TVA's latest inspection reports in May and October indicated that there was a structural problem with the retention ponds, Pugh said.

But Spadaro, who spent nearly 30 years with the federal government as a mining regulator and instructor, said TVA's last inspection report indicated the agency was irresponsible for failing to see these previous failures as an indication of a serious stability problem.

Spadaro, who also directed the National Mine Health and Safety Administration's training academy, said that rather than continuing to operate the pond, TVA should have drained it and rebuilt the dam.

Gov. Phil Bredesen has said Tennessee is now planning stronger oversight of such ponds. Other states where TVA has ash ponds or landfills, including Alabama and Kentucky, say they perform regular inspections at these sites and have not had any problems.

Knoxville-based TVA supplies electricity to Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, Kentucky, Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia.

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