WASHINGTON DC (WVLT) -- Five Roane County residents will return home on Thursday knowing how significant their time in Washington was. While there they were given the change to speak in front of a senate oversight committee considering if there needs to be more federal regulations placed on the Tennessee Valley Authority.
The trip came a little more than two and a half weeks after a retention pond failure at TVA’s Kingston Fossil Plant. It ended up swamping about 400 acres of Harriman with more than one billion gallons of coal fly ash.
Since it occurred, the ash spill has become a hot button issue among environmental activists and politicians.
The Southern Alliance for Clean Energy is an East Tennessee-based environmental group that has become one of several around the nation using the spill to speak out on what they feel are the dangers of coal. They even paid to fly the five Roane County citizens to Washington and arranged their appearance in front of the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. Once formal testimony began the general themes ranged from fear to explanation and reform.
California Sen. Barbara Boxer, the Democratic chairwoman of committee told the panel that she blames herself for allowing TVA almost free rein to police itself. She also grilled Tom Kilgore, president and CEO of TVA on how the federally-owned utility handled events leading up to the ash spill.
"You were told you had a problem and you chose the cheapest fix,” said Boxer to Tom Kilgore, president of TVA. “You were wrong. There is a lot of blame to go around."
The Southern Alliance brought samples of coal fly ash from the scene to show each members of the panel. Boxer later defined what “cleaning up” Roane County really meant.
"This isn't harmless,” she said. “There is all this stuff in it."
Part of the debate centers on how hazardous the coal fly ash actually is. Many argue the sludge contains high enough levels of cancer-causing trace metals to classify the Kingston Fossil Plant spill as a serious health hazard. The Environmental Protection Agency does not consider coal fly ash to be hazardous waste.
Testing in the spill area has failed to show high levels of dangerous metals, but environmental groups and residents living near the spill have criticized the TVA for not using an independent company to conduct the tests.
Kilgore told the panel that outside engineers and analyst will be brought in to test any proposed remedies to the clean and making Roane County's victims whole. He did not weigh in on whether the TVA needs more federal regulation.
"I don't know what caused this,” Kilgore said, “but this is not something that I think betrays the public trust in that we're careless.”
Some key lawmakers agree, and said the government shouldn't have to step in because the EPA on its own can create regulations for coal fly ash. Other members of TVA’s congressional caucus believe it’s still too early to decide what route should be taken.
"I don't like to shoot before I aim,” said Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee. “That's why I'm not ready to recommend what the federal role ought to be."
Alexander, an East Tennessee native, did say Washington ought to encourage a mini-Manhattan project to develop a cleaner burning coal. Dr. Stephen Smith, head of the Southern Alliance disagreed and said clean burning coal is a myth.
"The TVA has unleashed devastation on the very community it was created to protect," said Smith, who is still trying to decide if his organization should sue the nation’s largest public power provider.
Terry Upton is one of the five Roane County residents who spoke to the committee before formal testimony began. He owns a farm near the spill and doesn't know whether he wants to keep it, regardless of how TVA cleans up the mess. After listening to both sides during the oversight hearing, he remains content to give everyone the benefit of the doubt.
"I feel like the people here, senators and others, know what is going on in Roane County,” he said. “We will have a good route to get relief if we don't get it locally"
Each of the five residents said they did not travel to Washington to encourage lawmakers to punish the TVA. Instead they hope that after hearing their first hand accounts of the spill, Washington will be able to help the community rise back up from the ash.