KNOXVILLE, Tenn – Consultants hired by the Tennessee Valley Authority after a disastrous coal ash spill found widespread problems with how the nation's largest public utility is running and maintaining its coal ash storage operations.
Overall, the consultants said in the report Tuesday to the TVA board of directors, the "necessary systems, controls and culture were not in place" to properly manage the coal ash operations at TVA's 11 coal-fired power plants.
The report by McKenna Long and Aldridge of Atlanta follows the spill of more than 5 million cubic yards of coal ash Dec. 22 at the Kingston Fossil Plant about 40 miles west of Knoxville.
The consultants reported that "TVA did not have any standard procedures regarding operation and maintenance of wet-ash ponds" and didn't put a priority on preventing spills or accidents. Their report says TVA has failed to ensure standard training for engineers who inspect the operations.
It also found problems with a lack of accountability or system of checks and balances.
The failure of the earthen walls holding back the six-story tall pile of wet coal ash at the Kingston plant was one of the worst disasters of its kind and has focused new attention on the risks and lack of regulation of ash storage areas around the country.
The Kingston spill covered about 300 acres. The ash flowed into the Emory River and destroyed or damaged about two dozen lakeside homes. The cleanup could take years and TVA estimates the cost could run to $1 billion, excluding fines and pending lawsuits brought by residents.
A previous report by engineering consultants AECOM USA Inc. said the spill was caused by a unique combination of factors in one cell, including the high water content of the ash, the rising height of the pile, liquifying soils and a deep, unknown, unstable layer of silt and ash dubbed "slimes."
A Knoxville engineer has formally disputed that conclusion, saying the breach occurred first in a perimeter dike.
The McKenna Long study, however, examined the broader questions of management and responsibility.
The study said communications between four separate TVA divisions with responsibilities for ash retention facilities was "strained and in some instances, nonexistent."
The consultants noted that 2003 and 2006 leaks in the Kingston dredge cells were repaired with patches to those specific areas without "investigating the cause of the incidents beyond the specific physical occurrences" and to find lessons that could be applied to other ash retention facilities.