GALLATIN, Tenn. — The Tennessee Valley Authority has a three-pronged mission to promote energy, economic development and the environment. Now add to that rebuilding public trust.
The New Deal-era public utility has taken a beating recently for a series of missteps surrounding its storage of coal ash. For decades TVA, like other utilities, primarily dealt with this waste by sluicing it into unlined pits and impoundments.
When a dike burst on a six-story tall impoundment in Kingston in 2008, the problem could no longer be ignored. Although the spill was cleaned up, the repercussions for TVA are ongoing.
Many of the workers involved in the project are suing TVA's subcontractor, claiming inhaling the coal ash made them sick. And residents who live near other coal-burning power plants have expressed concerns the toxic chemicals in the ash could leach into their drinking water.
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TVA CEO Jeff Lyash has said the utility is following the law and science in deciding how to deal with its coal ash storage. But he also recognizes that TVA needs to win the public's trust. That's why the utility has been holding a series of community meetings to explain its plans for the coal ash and let the public ask questions.
Lyash said in an interview that coal for many years "helped power economies and improve lives and communities.
"Now we also realize that along with the benefits, we have to be committed to carefully managing the coal combustion residuals."
At a community meeting in Gallatin on Tuesday, TVA staff filled a conference room at the local civic center and answered questions about colorful posters that explained the local coal plant's history and what TVA is doing to monitor and prevent pollution. The utility has held separate meetings at Kingston and Bull Run and more are planned. As part of its outreach, TVA is also creating community action groups for interested citizens to act as liaisons between the public and the utility.
Lyash announced this summer that the utility will dig up and remove about 12 million cubic yards (9.2 million cubic meters) of coal ash the Gallatin Fossil Plant. The TVA had been fighting a lawsuit claiming the coal ash was polluting the Cumberland River, a source of drinking water for Nashville downstream.
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Lyash said the decision to move the Gallatin ash to a new lined pit was specific to that site. Other old, unlined ash pits in Tennessee, Kentucky and Alabama may be capped and left in place if the utility determines it is safe to do so.
It is the closure in place that has some people worried. That's where TVA hopes its outreach will help.
TVA is the nation's largest public utility, providing power to more than 10 million people in parts of seven Southern states.
"We're committed to the safe handling and storage of coal ash," Lyash said in an earlier interview. "We're committed to being good stewards of the environment."