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Tr-Ash Talk: TVA Corporate Culture Unjustified

The TVA Kingston trial has gotten off to a interesting, yet unsettling start. The trial consists of five cases, representing 250 plaintiffs who are suing TVA over the 2008 coal ash disaster that occurred in Knoxville, TN.

Testimony began last week, and proceedings are expected to continue anywhere from the next few weeks to the next few months. Representatives from TVA have been the first to testify, and so far it has been laden with blame-passing statements that characterize the disjointed nature of the TVA departments.

The Knoxville News Sentinel reported that TVA Engineer Matthew Williams was responsible for maintaining the groundwater monitoring system at the Kingston plant, but faced difficulties when other TVA crews repeatedly ran over his devices with heavy machinery.

Williams was in charge groundwater monitoring—a critical component of dealing with a coal ash pond. But his colleagues either did not know enough or did not care enough to steer clear of testing devices.

When asked if alleged Chief Engineer Chris Buttram was to blame for the coal ash spill, Williams responded by saying, “I am a middle man and it is possible that Chris was a middle man, too.” This kind of miscommunication and misunderstanding across departments, and even within departments is inexcusable.

TVA President and CEO Tom Kilgore also had comments about the toxic spill. He repeatedly stated that there were “missed opportunities” to stop the spill, but most of those opportunities passed before he took the job in 2005. If this is true, then why wasn’t “Chief Engineer” Chris Buttram aware of any written standards to follow during a coal ash pond inspection, and why had he never seen an ash pond before… and furthermore, why didn’t he know he was chief engineer?

These proceedings are indicative of a corporate culture that has no cross-departmental understanding, no form of checks and balances, and minimal oversight from above. Such mismanagement for a corporation responsible for the electricity for 9 million people is unacceptable and hopefully it does not illustrate a trend in the industry.