Environment and Natural Resources Liberty and Justice News

Locals Remain Unsatisfied With TVA’s Ground-Zero Recovery, Restitution Efforts

Residents along Swan Pond Road near Harriman still feel the Tennessee Valley Authority has failed to regain their trust, even as TVA officials claim building goodwill with the ground-zero community is a top disaster-recovery effort priority.

Swan Pond is the closest community to the Kingston waste-containment dike failure that released approximately 5.4 million cubic yards of coal ash into the Emory River, and buried more than 300 acres of lake and shoreline on Dec. 22, 2008.

Local activist Randy Ellis, vice chairman of the Roane County Community Advisory Group, said TVA has yet to take the necessary steps to repair strained relations with area citizens.

“I don’t think they have listened to the community,” Ellis said this week. Most of the work the TVA has completed in the area is at best merely cosmetic, he said, and doesn’t really hold up under scrutiny.

“They’re doing what they’ve got to do to cover their tracks,” said Ellis.

Most members of the Swan Pond community have been lifelong residents. And they certainly didn’t ask to be placed in the middle of the largest industrial spill in American history, said Ellis.

“TVA, through negligence, thrust them into this,” Ellis said.

He added that politicians and government officials tend to like boasting about the $43 million that’s made it’s way to Roane County in the wake of the spill. But none of that money has gone to the Swan Pond community, maintains Ellis — and many there lack basic services like sewer and nearby fire protection.

“No steps have been taken to make the community first affected (by the disaster) happy and whole,” said Ellis.

TVA’s Kingston recovery site general manager, Steve McCracken, says rebuilding trust with the community was among the the top priorities of TVA a year ago, and it still is.

“I can tell you there is no end to (rebuilding trust and communication with the community) any time soon that I see, nor do we want there to be,” McCracken said at a joint Tennessee House and Senate Enviroment Committee hearing to discuss the progress at the site on Tuesday. “We all know this was a catastrophic event. There’s great deal of anger and anxiety in the community. It’s our responsibility to get out there and meet people face to face.”

TVA is meeting with local community members and officials, and communicating through email to try to better understand issues of concern facing the community members, and ultimately fix problems, McCracken said.

“Critical to everything is making extensive efforts to reach out to neighbors, recognize their concerns, try to minimize the inevitable inconvenience,” McCracken said. “It’s significant along Swan Pond Road and Swan Pond Circle Road.”

Of the inconveniences area residents must endure are increased and heavy traffic due to the increase of workers, and heavy truck traffic to and from the site, Ellis said.

Asked by a lawmaker during the hearing what was being done to alleviate the railroad crossing delays — which force residents “to wait at a train crossing up to 15 times a day for 15 minutes at a time,” according to Ellis — McCracken said, “We are modifying our rail system at the site as we speak.”

He promised that by the first week of March changes will be made that ensure rail traffic “won’t be impacting that intersection any more.”

“I can tell you that it is irritating,” McCracken acknowledged. “It’s irritating to me.”

Rep. Dennis Ferguson, D-Midtown, encouraged TVA to be a better neighbor to the Swan Pond community, and to see how the residents can be helped.

“That community is the next door neighbor to TVA, and I hope they will go over there and see if there’s something they can do to make those people feel like they’re being taken care of,” he said.

Education News Tax and Budget

TN Looks to NC, FL for Education Reform Ideas

There aren’t any silver-bullet reform measures to solve all education problems in Tennessee, but with the right combination of policy and school leadership, student achievement can be improved without increased spending, a new state report suggests.

Assigned to study states that’ve shown education progress without breaking taxpayers’ pocketbooks, Office of Research and Education Accountability Director Phillip Doss told the House Education Committee during a presentation last week that school systems in Florida and North Carolina tended to perform well “regardless of what we were analyzing.”

Both those states also show shared similarities with Tennessee’s per-pupil spending and family characteristics, and both have shown consistent gains in student test scores, OREA’s study indicated.

However, Florida and North Carolina were both given A’s for the percentage of students scoring at or above the proficient level when accounting for state expenditures. Tennessee received a C on the same report, which was sponsored by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

In Florida, which passed its “A+ Plan” in 1999, schools with higher scores get more funding and autonomy. Schools with poorer performances are required to implement state sanctioned reforms.

In addition, the state offers a variety of nontraditional school options, including charter schools and its “virtual school” program, which allows students to take distance and online courses.

Florida is among states in the vanguard of the school-choice movement, and is ranked third for number of charter schools and second for charter-school enrollment.

Like Florida, North Carolina offers non-traditional options, too. Students there can earn a high school diploma and two years of college credit simultaneously.

“They focused on teacher policy as well,” said OREA Assistant Director Russell Moore. “Beginning teachers are required to participate in a three year induction program.”

North Carolina conducts teacher working conditions surveys, Moore said. Results showed “effective leadership” is essential for recruiting and retaining quality teachers.

Another North Carolina program provides outstanding high school seniors with college scholarships in exchange for a four-year teaching commitment.

“Policies may look similar from state to state, but we believe the implementation is where the difference is made,” Moore said.

He also cited a study on the Chicago education system, which included a look at schools with disadvantaged student populations. The study notes five key elements required for student success: school leadership; parent-community ties; faculty and staff capacity; safety and order; strong curriculum; and instructional support.

“Those supports have to work in combination, in tandem. They have to be interwoven, and schools have to be strong on all of these to show improvement,” Moore said. “(The researchers) likened it to baking a cake –without the right ingredients the whole enterprise falls flat.”

Rep. Harry Brooks, R-Knoxville, chairman of the House Education Committee, said his goal for Tennessee education is to lead the Southeast, and incorporating policies that work in North Carolina and Florida into the Volunteer State’s system would seem an appropriate strategy for success.

“I think the targeting of North Carolina and Florida is critical,” said Brooks “If we can exceed their competency and output, we will accomplish substantial gains in this state.”