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REPORT: TVA shrugged off red flags

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By The Staff

By DAMON LAWRENCE

dlawrence@roanecounty.com

The TVA Office of the Inspector General was not fooled by the smoke-and-mirrors press conference TVA had on the root-cause analysis of the fly ash disaster.

In a damning report released Tuesday, the agency’s watchdog accused TVA officials and the contractor charged with explaining what happened of engaging in a “delicate tap dance” to avoid answering questions about TVA’s responsibility for the disaster.     

“Repeated efforts by the media to learn anything about TVA’s culpability were met with artful dodges,” the OIG report states. “Clearly, both (TVA Chief Operating Officer Bill) McCollum and (AECOM engineer Bill) Walton had been schooled in how to deflect any question that would elicit an answer that would suggest legal liability for TVA.”

TVA has been under scrutiny over the disaster, which occurred at its Kingston Fossil Plant last December.

A dike failure at the plant polluted the surrounding area with 5.4 million cubic yards of fly ash.

Instead of getting to the bottom of what caused the dike to fail, TVA has been more focused on minimizing its legal liability, according to the inspector general report.

“Clearly, a reasonable expectation was created for Congress and TVA’s other stakeholders that since January 2009, TVA has been working diligently to explain why the Kingston ash spill occurred,” the report states. “It was not foreseeable that, in fact, TVA would not review what management practices may have contributed to the failure, but would instead tightly circumscribe the scope of review to intentionally avoid revealing any evidence that would suggest culpability on the part of TVA.”

The inspector general cited TVA negligence and a culture of arrogance within the organization as factors that played a role in the disaster.

The TVA Office of the Inspector General hired Marshall Miller & Associates to review the root-cause analysis.

Miller concluded that TVA could have possibly prevented the disaster had recommended safety modifications been put in place.

“Red flags” had been raised over a long period of time by TVA employees and consultants hired by the utility company.  

“Specifically, a 1985 internal memorandum written by a TVA engineer and two 2004 reports by external engineering consultants raised concerns about the stability of the Kingston ash storage facilities,” the inspector general report states. “For reasons that are still not entirely clear, appropriate safety modifications and additional analyses were not made.”

Fly ash contains many hazardous substances.

However, the inspector general report said TVA treated ash like general garbage instead of material that posed danger to the public and the environment.

The report said the result of that attitude was significant weaknesses in ash management practices across TVA, including a failure to implement recommended corrective actions that could have possibly prevented the Kingston spill.

The attitude also caused a lack of policies and procedures, poor maintenance, the lack of specialized training, a failure to follow engineering best practices, multiple organizational structure changes and inadequate communication.

TVA hired AECOM to conduct a root-cause analysis on the disaster.

The inspector general found the analysis, which cost TVA millions of dollars, fell short in several areas.

“We find that TVA made no effort to publicly disclose what management practices may have contributed to the Kingston spill,” the OIG report states. “The very tightly scoped AECOM report minimizes TVA management’s liability and provides no ‘lessons learned.’”

Walton and McCollum served as spokesmen during TVA’s press conference on the root-cause analysis on June 25.

Walton wouldn’t assess blame when asked if TVA was at fault. He said his company was hired to put together an analysis that could stand the rigors of peer review.

The inspector general suggest the vagueness of the root-cause analysis may have to do with the numerous lawsuits TVA is facing because of the disaster.  

“TVA management handled the root cause analysis in a manner that avoided transparency and accountability in favor of preserving a litigation strategy,” the inspector general  report states.

During his presentation of the root-cause analysis, Walton focused heavily on a yogurt-like layer underneath the failed dike he called “slimes.”

Miller found the slimes factor was overemphasized.He concluded that other factors could have been of equal or greater significance.

The inspector general report suggests that TVA state the following to the public:

• Building the original ash pond over a lake bed was a faulty design.

• Corrective actions recommended both by TVA employees and by consultants should have been implemented.

• Stacking ash to the heights contemplated at Kingston was a bad idea.

• Not having policies and procedures for ash management contributed to the spill.

• A culture that minimized the importance of ash management needs to be changed.

• Wet ash ponds should comply with dam safety standards rather than with landfill standards.

The inspector general’s entire report on TVA’s root-cause analysis is available online at oig.tva.gov.

“I understand the concern that OIG is now addressing about the scope of the root-cause analysis, and I want to emphasize that our work here is far from finished,” TVA president and CEO Tom Kilgore wrote in a letter to inspector general Richard Moore. “Our first step was to fully and completely understand from an engineering and forensic perspective how the failure actually occurred physically, and then to apply that knowledge in our assessment of TVA’s other impoundments.”    

Roane County officials were dismayed by the report.

"Over last several months, I have had increasing concerns over TVA’s handling of the ash spill in Roane County," County Executive Mike Farmer said. "After seeing the report from Inspector General Richard Moore, my concerns have turned to straight-up anger at how this community was slighted both before and after the failure on Dec. 22."

Farmer added, "TVA’s behavior is unconscionable, and the people of Roane County deserve better. I think I speak for our county leaders in saying that we will hold TVA accountable."