January 21st marks the two year anniversary of Citizens United v. Federal Election Committee, the landmark Supreme Court case that removed limits on election spending by corporations and other moneyed interests, overthrowing 100 years of election laws.
400 West Summit Hill Drive
Knoxville, TN 37902
Kingston coal ash spill:
An overarching issue at TVA has been the December 2008 coal ash spill at Kingston Fossil Plant in Harriman, Tennessee. The collapse of a containment pond unleashed 5.4 billion cubic yards of remnants from the burning of coal, destroying homes in the process. The spill was the largest of its kind in U.S. history.
TVA’s attempt to recover from the spill has been a not untroubled process. A June 2009 report from a TVA-hired consultancy, AECOM [PDF], concluded that the spill had been caused by, among other things, a thin layer of ash sludge “slimes” that had formed in one section of the pond. The layer caused the impoundment to shift with time until it finally broke forth. TVA engineers never detected the layer in their inspections, and a TVA lawyer later likened the situation to an airplane crew who would never detect an internal wing crack no matter how thoroughly they had conducted an inspection.
But the report was rebuked the following month by TVA’s Office of the Inspector General [PDF], which wrote that the report failed to investigate such things as the possible role of TVA’s management in the disaster, and that it “overemphasized” the role of the slimes layer. “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 reported.
Additionally, it is noteworthy that AECOM, the consultant firm hired by TVA, is an “associate member” of the American Coal Ash Association, a trade association whose stated mission is to “advance the management and use of coal combustion products in ways that are environmentally responsible, technically sound, commercially competitive, and supportive of a sustainable global community.”
In same month TVA’s inspector general criticized the AECOM report, another TVA-hired consultancy, McKenna Long & Aldridge, found that “the necessary systems, controls, standards and culture were not in place” to prevent the spill [PDF]. McKenna Long & Aldridge is not a member of the American Coal Ash Association.
Damages from the Kingston spill ran up to $1 billion, and despite claims by the company in 2010 that the clean-up had left the spill site “better than it was before the spill”, scientific work from that same year suggested the area remained adversely affected.
TVA’s liability for the spill came to a head during a trial in September and October of 2011. During the trial, witness testimony described the irresponsible practices that led to the disaster. One senior manager described the perfunctory attitude toward scientific monitoring at the impoundment, with unqualified employees collecting data for an uncertain destination. An outside expert also testified that TVA personnel were poorly prepared to carry out inspections. A TVA engineer who was conducting a study of the impoundment admitted that he removed the word “immediately” from a company report when referring to the need for repairs. He said the idea came from TVA’s public relations department. The engineer also testified that—in an effort to avoid confusing his colleagues—he actively removed data readings taken during the time surrounding the spill.
A decision on the September-October trial is pending as of this profile’s publication. A trial for another group of lawsuits is scheduled for November 2011.
Coal Ash Regulation:
In June of 2010, the EPA proposed the first-ever federal regulations on coal ash storage. The proposal put forth the possibility that coal ash, previously determined as non-hazardous by the EPA, would be treated as “special” (i.e. hazardous) waste. After gathering public comments on the proposal, EPA head Lisa Jackson indicated in March that a final coal ash standard would not be revealed until at least 2012.
TVA owns a total of 24 coal ash ponds. After self-reporting in 2009 that the company had nothing but low hazard impoundments, TVA later reported that 4 of its impoundments qualified as high-hazard, with the majority of remaining sites labeled significant hazard. After TVA implemented adjustments to improve safety at its impoundments, a 2010 report by Stantec Consulting Services concluded that only one of TVA’s coal ash ponds were high hazard, the formerly high hazard impoundments having been reduced to significant hazards [PDF]. However, the environmental group Earthjustice noted that “the Kingston ash pond was never identified as hazardous before it collapsed.” It is also noteworthy that Stantec is an associate member of the American Coal Ash Association.
In a 2009 interview, TVA president and CEO Tom Kilgore declined to comment on EPA’s plans to regulate coal ash, citing the 2008 spill. Another TVA executive quickly added that the company supports “a national standard because right now there’s not one there. And that would certainly be a benefit to everyone”.
TVA, similar to AECOM and Stantec, is a utility member of the American Coal Ash Association. ACAA also has a front group, Citizens for Recycling First [PDF]. The group was formed in February 2010, and is headed by John Ward, who until 2011 volunteered as chairman of the Government Relations
Committee at the American Coal Ash Association [PDF].
TVA views nuclear power [PDF] as a key factor to becoming a cleaner company. TVA CEO Tom Kilgore is a known proponent of nuclear energy, and is a board member of the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations, as well as an executive committee member of the Nuclear Energy Institute. Most recently, TVA has restarted Unit 1 at Browns Ferry in Alabama and made plans to complete Unit 2 at Watts Bar and Unit 1 at Bellefonte.
At its board meeting in August 2011, TVA approved the revitalization of Bellefonte 1, a nuclear reactor that was licensed in 1974, but was stopped in 1988 due to reduced electricity needs. TVA estimates the reactor will be online by around 2020.
More than $1.6 billion in today's money has been spent on Bellefonte 1’s construction and maintenance thus far, with the costs of completion estimated at $4.9 billion. One industry analyst referred to such costs as potentially “crazy,” while Kilgore told the New York Times: “I can’t forecast out 8 or 10 years. We just know when we get there, Bellefonte 1 is a good economic proposition.”
Bellefonte 1 also faces engineering risks. The reactor site is surrounded by easily fracturable limestone formations. It is also located in an earthquake zone [PDF].
The completion of Watts Bar 2 has also raised controversy. Supposed to be finished by 2012, the project was extended by the TVA Board to 2015, with $1.5 to 2 billion in additional funding. That brought the cost for finishing the reactor to up to 80% more than the initial estimate. Former TVA board chair David Freeman was appalled, saying "I feel almost like Rip Van Winkle, waking up from a long sleep, and here we're still working on Watts Bar."
After years of delay, the Environmental Protection Agency is finally issuing safeguards that will protect Americans by reducing the amount of mercury pollution and other poisons emitted by coal plants around the country. +
Updated Nov. 2012 +
1000 Main Street, Houston, TX, 77002
GenOn Energy is one of the largest wholesale producers of electricity in the US, founded in the December 2010 merger of Mirant Corporation and RRI Energy. Mirant’s CEO, Ed Muller, became the Chairman and CEO of GenOn. +
With a fleet of generating facilities that utilize 100% fossil fuel energy, GenOn produces significant amounts of air and water pollution throughout the country. The Keystone Generating Station in Pennsylvania, for example, is responsible for more toxic air pollutants (pdf) per year than any other plant in the country.
As of 2011, only two of GenOn’s coal-fired generating facilities have mercury control mechanisms installed (data provided by Ventyx, 2011). Exposure to mercury is known to negatively impact the neurological development of fetuses, infants, and children.
According to data from the Clean Air Task Force, fine particle pollution from Mirant and RRI Energy plants prior to the merger contributed to 427 deaths in 2010 alone. Also in 2010, valuation of the negative health impacts from pollution released by the facilities amounted to a combined $3.34 billion.
Due to ongoing pollution violations, GenOn’s generating facilities have been involved in numerous legal actions, brought forth by environmental organizations as well as state and federal agencies.
In a federal lawsuit started in 2007, the Sierra Club and PennEnvironment sued GenOn (then RRI Energy) for violations of the Clean Water Act by the company’s Conemaugh Generating Station. Since 2005, there were a reported 8,684 violations by the facility, located outside of Pittsburgh. The Conemaugh plant was said to have released 500 gallons of polluted water per minute, containing mercury, iron, aluminum, manganese, selenium, and boron, into the Stonycreek River. At times, pollution reached more than ten times the legal levels. This lawsuit was settled in June 2011, with GenOn agreeing to pay $5 million in damages, making it the largest settlement of its kind in Pennsylvania history. Had GenOn been charged the maximum for each violation, fines would have amounted to $300 million.
The Seward Generating Station, also in Pennsylvania, was cited by environmental organizations in 2010 for over 12,000 violations (pdf) of state and federal water laws. Before the case could be brought to court, GenOn (then RRI Energy) and the state Department of Environmental Protection worked out a new permit (pdf) that addressed the specified violations. More recently, the Seward plant has been exposed for improper disposal of coal ash (pdf), allowing hexavalent chromium to leach into groundwater supplies. Levels of this carcinogen near Seward have been measured at 3.3 times above federal drinking water standards.
In 2006, four generating facilities in Maryland and Virginia, the Dickerson, Chalk Point, Morgantown, and Potomac plants, were all cited as violating air pollution standards. GenOn (then Mirant) was ordered to install pollution control mechanisms in the plants, as well as pay civil penalties to the state and federal governments. More recent legal action involving the Chalk Point (pdf) and Potomac stations has confirmed ongoing air pollution from the plants. The Potomac plant is scheduled to close in 2012.
In early 2011, the US EPA ordered GenOn’s Portland Generating Station, in Eastern Pennsylvania, to reduce their sulfur dioxide emissions by 81% over the next three years. This pollution is adversely affecting communities in Northwestern New Jersey. Exposure to sulfur dioxide can aggravate respiratory and cardiovascular disease, and cause breathing problems, especially among children and the elderly. The Portland plant has also been criticized for unsafe disposal of coal ash, putting the health of local residents at risk. According to the EPA, coal combustion residues (coal ash) “contain contaminants like mercury, cadmium and arsenic, which are associated with cancer and various other serious health effects. EPA's risk assessment and damage cases demonstrate that, without proper protections, these contaminants can leach into groundwater and can migrate to drinking water sources, posing significant health public concerns.” Coal ash is currently not regulated by the EPA; regulations are pending.
GenOn and its predecessor companies (RRI Energy and Mirant) have spent over $5.2 million on lobbying for the interests of electric utilities. As of December 2012, GenOn’s political donations for the 2012 election cycle totaled $291,241.