Kingston Coal Ash Trial Underway

Guest Blog | September 20, 2011 | Coal, Energy Policy

This week marks the beginning of a federal trial resulting from the 2008 Kingston coal ash disaster. That environmental catastrophe resulted in 5.4 million cubic yards of toxic coal ash being dumped in Roane County, Tennessee, making it the biggest environmental disaster of its kind in history. Now, nearing the third anniversary of the disaster, lawyers representing 230 victims of the spill are gathering in a Knoxville courtroom to argue whether the Tennessee Valley Authority could have prevented the impoundment collapse that caused the spill.

Through their lawyers, the victims argue that among other things, TVA failed to properly monitor, maintain and repair the Kingston coal ash impoundment, which led to the spill and therefore damaged the victims. Testimony offered yesterday lends support to that claim. TVA engineer Chris Buttram was called as the first witness and admitted that just four months after joining TVA he was assigned to be the lead inspector for a review of the Kingston impoundment. The inspection that he led was merely a visual inspection, which did not include testing stability or construction of the dike. Moreover, Buttram said that he had never seen coal ash prior to his inspection and that TVA did not provide him with any written standards to guide his inspection.

Buttram’s inspection took place in October 2008, but he did not complete a final report until February 2009, two months after the December 22 disaster occurred. In the interim between the inspection and the final report, TVA’s public relations staff reviewed the document and asked Buttram to edit his recommendations. Buttram initially found several areas of erosion that may have been weakening the dike so Buttram recommended immediate repair. TVA’s public relations department asked him to remove the word “immediately” because, according to Buttram’s testimony, they knew that after the spill the report would have a larger audience than a normal, mundane, technical document.scales_of_justice_25

A second TVA engineer, Matthew D. Williams, testified today. Williams was in charge of monitoring groundwater contamination beneath the Kingston ash pond. In his testimony Williams said that he had difficulty monitoring data because heavy equipment continually destroyed the devices that he relied on for measurements. He further testified that TVA did not respond to his concerns about the careless equipment operation.

Both sets of testimony are damaging to TVA’s claims that it is not at fault for the disaster, but TVA will have an opportunity to present its own witnesses as the trial progresses.

In the wake of the 2008 disaster the Environmental Protection Agency promised to issue first-ever federal safeguards for coal ash storage. Almost three years later EPA is still delaying coal ash protections. Also following the disaster, TVA promised to convert all of its coal ash storage from wet impoundments to much safer dry landfills. TVA claimed it would do this in 8-10 years, but the latest estimates show that TVA is delaying final conversion as late as 2022.

Our justice system is designed to offer compensation to those who have been harmed by the negligence of others so hopefully the result of this trial will be fair compensation to those who have been injured by TVA’s poor management of coal ash. But compensating the injured will not protect against future disasters. To protect the public from yet another collapse or the slower and subtler damage that coal ash causes as it leaches toxins into ground water, both EPA and TVA must act on their responsibilities just as the justice system will act on its responsibility.

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