TVA OIG Report: Kingston Coal Spill Caused by Bad Management Practices

A report released on Tuesday by the Tennessee Valley Authority’s (TVA’s) Office of the Inspector General (OIG) lambasts the publically owned company’s management practices. It says that the breach of a 50-year-old coal ash storage pond and subsequent ash spill at its Kingston Fossil Plant in Roane County, Tenn., last December could have been prevented if TVA had heeded 20 years of warnings and taken recommended corrective actions.

The 111-page report (PDF) also alleges that TVA’s management elected not to publically disclose management practices that may have contributed to the Kingston spill in its root cause analysis performed by AECOM Technology Corp. In limiting this information, the OIG’s report alleges that TVA avoided transparency and accountability to preserve legal strategy.

At a U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee hearing on Tuesday—the third appearance made by TVA officials since the Dec. 22 coal ash spill—TVA Inspector General Richard Moore told Chair Eddie Johnson (D-Texas), “Madam Chairwoman, you have said that, ‘The Kingston spill was caused by regulatory neglect, a lack of government oversight, and irresponsible coal ash practices.’ Our OIG report that we make public today supports your statement.”

Moore said that the investigation showed TVA management knew that consultants hired by TVA had urged them to perform a much-needed analysis and to take specific corrective actions, but that TVA had failed to follow the engineers’ recommendations and failed to perform the analysis or take corrective action.

He also said that TVA had a history of poor maintenance of its ash ponds and had experienced seeps or breeches in the past. Making matters worse, there were no policies or procedures at TVA for the management of coal ash. “Documents supporting this have been made public by TVA and these facts are widely-known,” he said.

The report released on Tuesday also said that AECOM, the global geo-technical engineering firm that had been contracted by TVA in January to perform a $3 million detailed root cause analysis of the spill, overemphasized the “slimes” layer as a trigger for the Kingston spill. An engineering consultant firm, Marshall Miller, hired by the OIG to conduct a peer review of the root cause analysis concluded that factors other than the “slimes” layer may have been of equal or greater significance.

Among the OIG’s more serious allegations was that, despite internal knowledge of risks associated with ash ponds, TVA’s formal Enterprise Risk Management process—which began in 1999—had not identified ash management as a risk. Although over the years there was internal discussion about placing the ash ponds under TVA’s Dam Safety Program, ultimately, TVA did not place the ash ponds under that program. “Treating the ash ponds like dams would have required more rigorous inspections and engineering,” the report said.

Finally, the OIG accused TVA of harboring a “legacy culture” at its fossil fuel plants that impacted the way it handles coal ash. “Ash was relegated to the status of garbage at a landfill rather than treating it as a potential hazard to the public and environment,” said the report.

The OIG said in a press release that TVA President and CEO Tom Kilgore had generally agreed with the OIG’s recommendations in the report. These included implementing a cultural focusing initiative across the agency to incorporate lessons learned from the spill.

He also reportedly agreed to use the “detailed, technical explanation of what and how the Kingston dike failure occurred to ensure that it never happens again and to safely close the failed cell.” In addition, Kilgore said TVA would develop and implement policies and procedures to store, handle, and maintain ash and ash disposal facilities, and implement a comprehensive program for future coal combustion product remediation and conversion.

“We take seriously the lessons learned from Kingston and are incorporating them into our management initiatives to improve TVA’s performance and reputation,” Kilgore told the House subcommittee (PDF) on Tuesday. “Others in the electric utility industry share our interest and yours in understanding how and why this occurred and what additional measures are needed to avoid any similar occurrence. This is a costly learning experience for us, and it is a learning experience for the entire industry, as well.”

Source: TVA, TVA OIG, House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee