TVA Coal Ash Justice (Finally) Begins

by Robert Gardner

September 16, 2011

TVA Coal Ash Disaster

You may remember the toxic aluminum spill that happened in Hungary in October of last year. The disaster resulted in the arrest of Zoltan Bakonyi, the managing director of the Hungarian Aluminum Production and Trade Company, for criminal negligence that lead to the catastrophe. At the time, he was facing up to ten years in prison.

On Tuesday, news came out that Hungary is imposing a $646-million-dollar fine on the company. The 184 million-acre flood caused “unprecedented” environmental damage and resulted in the deaths of 10 people.

While the jury is out as to whether or not the spill has been completely remedied, the message is clear: Polluters will pay for the pollution they cause.

Meanwhile, here in the states, it’s a very different case.

Yesterday, judges began hearing arguments about damages related to the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) spill in 2008.

The disaster occurred when 5.4 million cubic yards of coal fly ashthe toxic remnants of coal used to fire power plantsburst through the earthen boundaries of its impoundment, spreading a six-foot wall of ash over 300 acres. Despite this, CEO Tom D. Kilgore faced no penalties, TVA paid no fines (despite our repeated calls for a criminal probe), and instead, TVA is busy shipping their toxic mess to Perry County, Alabama (where the highest point in the county is now a coal ash dump).

All told, there are five cases that are moving forward against TVA. Plaintiffs in the case want compensation for the harm TVA has done. Practically speaking, that means compensation for past harm and guarantees of no future harm, so TVA would pay for loss of property value, business losses, health care costs associated with the spill, as well as future medical monitoring to make sure nobody gets sick in the future.

Seems reasonable.

We’ll see how the legal process plays out. I’m sure TVA has the best attorneys that money can buy. I’m sure they will use every opportunity to minimize costs. However, the problem of toxic coal ash will not be settled with the case of TVA because we as a country continue to mine and burn coal to generate our electricity.

But that habit is finally beginning to change.

Already, plants across the country are shutting down as their owners realize that coal is no longer the energy of the future. Just today, three plants in Kentucky announced plans to close.

It’s a start. However, we still need strong federal regulations to ensure that coal ash is properly stored and that what happened in Tennessee never happens again. The Obama administration hasn’t done what they’ve promised on coal ash, and just recently, they’ve punted on ozone regulations.

Rest assured, we will continue to push to make sure that coal plants (and their pollution) are put to a stop.

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