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Boxer Statement: Oversight Hearing on the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Recent Major Coal Ash Spill
January 8, 2009

(Remarks as prepared for delivery)

I would like to begin today's hearing by acknowledging and welcoming some of the people who live in the area devastated by the coal ash spill in Tennessee. I spoke with them yesterday, and heard how this disaster forever changed their lives. They are farmers, ranchers, nurses, and parents. They are in the audience today. Bridget, Melinda, Ron, Teresa and Terry, would you please stand so you can be recognized?

The beautiful place where they lived was instantly transformed by a wall of ash, water and debris. They are anxious about the spill's potential effects on health, especially to children, and to their livelihoods. They sent me personal statements that I would like to enter into the record. I would also like to take a moment to say that our thoughts go out to all the people affected by the spill.

Let me describe what happened at 1 AM on Monday, December 22, 2008 near the Kingston TVA coal-fired power plant. An earthen wall failed on a 40-acre surface impoundment holding coal ash. More than one billion gallons of waste rushed down the valley like a wave, covering more than 300 acres. The volume of ash and water was nearly 100 times greater than the amount of oil spilled in the Exxon Valdez disaster.

This image shows the scale of this enormous coal ash spill. It's like a giant mudslide.

I'd like to show you a few examples of the devastation left behind in the wake of this disaster.

The flow of toxic ash and water impacted 42 parcels of properties, destroyed 3 homes, damaged 9 others, covered roads and railroads, harmed fish, and polluted the Emory River. Thankfully, no serious injuries were reported. But, this disaster happened while the community slept. I shudder to think of what could have happened if this wall had failed on a summer day, when parents and children were playing on the shore, swimming, and fishing in boats.

Senator Alexander, I look forward to working with you on the recovery efforts.

Today, I want to explore several key questions, including: How did this spill happen? What are the spill's impacts? How is this area going to be cleaned up? And, how do we ensure that events like this do not happen again?

How did this spill happen? TVA officials say they are investigating why the dam surrounding the ash collapsed. So far, they have said heavy rains and freezes may have triggered the disaster.

But, the Nashville "Tennessean" reported on January 4 that the same earthen wall had smaller blowouts in 2003 and 2006. The people that I met with yesterday said that they knew that the impoundment had problems.

Following the 2003 event, TVA rejected several recommendations for retrofitting the impoundment because they were deemed too costly, with estimates up to $25 million. We must find out why this wall failed.

What are the spill's impacts? This depends on what was in the coal waste.

I have a jar of the sludge from the coal ash spill, from outside one of the homes. A billion gallons like it spilled from the impoundment.

Let me tell you about some of the toxic substances that are generally found in coal ash.

This chart tells us what toxins sludge can have in it and the hazards it can pose. It does not belong in anyone's backyard or town.

At the spill site, the US EPA has found river water with arsenic, beryllium, cadmium, chromium and lead above drinking water standards. The longer this ash stays on the ground the more it can dry out and blow around. Some of the heavy metals in ash can harm people when inhaled.

We must get a complete picture of contaminants in different parts of the coal spill. Some types of coal have more contaminants than others, and TVA used this impoundment to hold coal that was combusted over a number of years. Hotspots of contamination could be buried just beneath the surface of the spill.

This raises another very important question: how is this disaster going to be cleaned up, how is this area going to be restored? Seeding the ground with grass is not a permanent solution. A cleanup can be done right, or it can be a ticking time bomb. This area must be cleaned up to address the potential long-term threats to families who live there.

And, we must also ensure that this type of disaster does not happen again. We need to have standards in place to make certain that coal ash is managed, and disposed of properly - including the use of "dry storage" rather than "wet storage", which the Kingston Plant used.

Over 130 million tons of coal combustion waste is produced in the U.S. every year. This is the equivalent of a train of boxcars stretching from Washington, D.C. to Melbourne, Australia.

A 2007 US EPA report found 67 ash impoundments or landfills in 23 states that had caused or were suspected of causing contamination, including to ground or surface waters. EPA knew of dozens of other sites but lacked sufficient information to single out the cause.

For nearly three decades, EPA has been looking at the issue of how to regulate combustion waste. The federal government has the power to regulate these wastes, and inaction has allowed this enormous volume of toxic material to go largely unregulated. State efforts are very inconsistent, and as more and more toxic material is removed from coal combustion, it is critically important that protective standards for coal ash waste be established.

I intend to work with the incoming Obama Administration to ensure that the necessary action is taken to protect our public health and the environment.

The disaster in Tennessee proves the point that we cannot avoid the costs associated with managing coal ash, and that it is far better to invest in preventing disasters like this than spending even more to clean them up.

This Committee has oversight responsibility for the Tennessee Valley Authority, which provides an opportunity to focus on how a utility should be managed in the 21st century. This oversight hearing is only the first in our effort to help TVA become a national leader in innovation and environmental stewardship.


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