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Campaign Kicked Off to Fight EPA’s Coal-Burn Regs

Critics of new Environmental Protection Agency limits on coal-plant emissions say they fear the Obama administration is attempting to incrementally phase out coal as an energy source in America.

The Consumer Energy Alliance launched a nationwide public relations campaign last week geared toward convincing the public of coal’s utility as an “affordable and reliable” source of U.S. electricity.

At a regional conference in Nashville Sept. 25, Michael Whatley, the alliance’s executive vice president, said a “full-fledged conversation” is necessary to discuss what detrimental impacts the new rules are going to have on coal-fired power plants.

Whatley said the initial emphasis of CEA’s campaign will be to fan opposition among broad sectors of energy consumers – industry, agriculture and household users.

The regulatory effort that prompted the CEA campaign would require new large natural gas-fired turbines to be limited to 1,000 pounds of CO2 per megawatt-hour, and small natural gas-fired turbines to 1,100 pounds of CO2 per megawatt-hour.

Additionally, new coal-fired plants would be limited to 1,100 pounds of CO2 per megawatt-hour, according to an EPA press release on the new standards. New coal plants could also opt for a tighter limit if they choose to average emissions over multiple years, offering more operational flexibility.

Lacking more advanced emissions control technology, newer power plants produce 1,800 pounds of carbon emissions per megawatt-hour, The Tennessean recently reported.

Whatley told TNReport the EPA’s new regulations “are going to basically require that you cannot build a new coal-fired power plant unless you can capture all of the carbon emissions that come off it, and then sequester them in the ground somewhere.”

He said the the technology doesn’t yet exist to do that.

“What we’re going to see next year is another set of regulations that are going to talk about how they’re going to reduce the emissions from pre-existing plants,” Whatley said. “And unfortunately, right now, we don’t know what the impacts of that are going to look like.”

The EPA release says that the agency will reach out to state and local governments, as well as those in the industry to work to establish the new standards for carbon pollution from existing plants.

This second round of regulations would come about under a separate section of the Clean Air Act as the first set, and although the agency would establish the requirements, the states would be the ones to choose how to enforce the new rules, according to a report by The New York Times.

Dr. David Penn, the director of Middle Tennessee State University’s Business and Economic Research Center, teaches a course on environmental economics and told TNReport that he believes the benefits of restricting pollution from coal will ultimately outweigh the costs.

“It certainly is going to reduce the demand for coal, but the demand for coal … at power plants has been falling anyway as plants switch to natural gas, which is cheaper,” Penn said. “Coal is finding other markets in Europe and in the Far East. Better air quality has a cost, but the benefits typically far exceed the cost of increasing air quality. Benefits in terms of more longevity — (and) you’re sick fewer days.”

This is a view that the Tennessee Environmental Council shares.

“Anything that we do to sequester coal and all the carbon discharges, and all the other toxic pollutants that come out of those smoke stacks is good for human health, and it’s really good for our economy (because it cuts health care costs),” said Executive Director John McFadden.

The intent of the new regulations is to reduce carbon emissions for the purposes of fighting global warming and improving health by restricting the allowable amount of carbon produced by new natural gas and coal-fired power plants, according to the agency press release.

However, the EPA’s proposal, which outlines the regulations, suggests that the expected reduction in carbon emissions will be “negligible” through the year 2022.

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.

State Health Assessment Of Kingston Ash Spill Site Complete

State Of Tennessee Press Release, Dec. 22, 2009:

Public Comments Accepted Through February 9, 2010

NASHVILLE – The Tennessee Department of Health’s (TDH) Environmental Epidemiology Program, under a cooperative agreement with the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), has completed a draft health assessment for Tennessee Valley Authority’s (TVA) Kingston coal ash spill site and is accepting public comments now through February 9, 2010, it was recently announced. Both the 200-page assessment and a four-page fact sheet summary are available on the department’s Web site.

“We understand local residents’ concern about the potential health implications of the coal ash spill,” said Bonnie Bashor, director of the Environmental Epidemiology Program. “It’s the department’s responsibility and mission to protect the health of the people in Roane County. With this in mind, the department took very seriously the review and analysis of collected data to determine any health risks associated with coal ash exposure.”

Details about the department’s participation in a Roane County community public meeting to answer questions about the draft health assessment will be announced soon. The meeting is anticipated to be held in January 2010.

The fact sheet outlines the public health assessment (PHA) process and next steps, and lists all of the environmental data sets used in writing the PHA. The full public health assessment includes a summary, discussion, conclusions, recommendations and a public health action plan. Environmental data from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC), TVA and others are presented in the report.

Highlights of the conclusions reached in the report are as follows:

  • No harm to the community’s health is expected from touching the coal ash. Even though touching the coal ash could cause local skin irritation, the metals in the ash are not likely to get into people’s bodies from merely touching the coal ash.
  • Using municipal drinking water from the Kingston and Rockwood water treatment plants will not harm people’s health because the raw and finished water have continuously met drinking water standards. Also, using well or spring water within four miles of the coal ash release will not harm people’s health from exposure to coal ash or metals in the coal ash because no evidence has been found for groundwater contamination by coal ash.
  • Using the Emory River at the site of the coal ash release (near Emory River mile 2) could result in harm to residents or trespassers from physical hazards associated with cleanup efforts and from the volume of ash present, if residents or trespassers entered the area. No harm to people’s health should result from recreational use of the Emory, Clinch and Tennessee Rivers outside the area of the lower Emory River down to the confluence of the Emory and Clinch Rivers, as specified in the recreational advisory and river closure. As the advisory indicates, people are advised to avoid areas where they see ash, however, even if it is outside the area of immediate impact. Previous fish advisories should be followed.
  • Breathing ambient air near the coal ash release is not expected to harm people’s health as long as adequate dust suppression measures are in place. No harm to people’s health is expected from occasionally breathing coal ash if it should become airborne for short periods of time. If dust suppression measures should fail and particulate matter is present in concentrations greater than National Ambient Air Quality Standards due to the coal ash becoming airborne for periods longer than one day, the department concludes that particulate matter from airborne coal ash could harm people’s health, especially for those persons with pre-existing respiratory or heart conditions.

The draft PHA has already undergone government review by Tennessee Emergency Management Agency, TDEC, ATSDR and EPA to ensure the accuracy of the data and science used in the report. Also involved in the review of the assessment were the Tennessee Poison Center and Oak Ridge Associated Universities. The ATSDR has provided the report to three outside, independent reviewers for scientific peer review as well.

Comments must be submitted in writing. Submit via e-mail to EEP.Health@tn.gov or mail to:

Environmental Epidemiology Program

Tennessee Department of Health

1st Floor, Cordell Hull Building

425 5th Avenue North

Nashville TN 37243

December 22, 2009 marks one year since the coal ash spill, where a retaining wall failed at the TVA Kingston Fossil Plant in Roane County, Tenn. More than 5.4 million cubic yards of coal ash spilled from an on-site holding pond to cover more than 300 acres of surrounding land and water.

TDEC serves as the state’s lead agency to contain the immediate threat to human health and the environment. TDH continues to play a critical role in working with TDEC and assessing and ensuring ongoing public health protection. In the weeks following the spill, TDH went door-to-door to conduct a health survey and to share information with area residents. The department provided information to area medical practitioners. TDH operates the state lab that analyzes all the samples collected by TDEC, and provides health assessors to determine whether adverse health effects are likely based on the data.

On May 11, the United States Environmental Protection Agency signed an enforceable agreement with TVA to oversee the removal of coal ash at the TVA Kingston Plant. The state of Tennessee welcomed this action and continues to work in partnership with EPA to ensure the cleanup in Roane County is thorough and protective of public health and the environment.

For more information on the involvement of TDH in protecting residents’ health in the aftermath of the Kingston coal ash spill, visit http://health.state.tn.us/coalashspill.htm. For more information on the Environmental Epidemiology Program, visit the Website.

Still Sifting Through the Ash

On this morning last year, residents along Swan Pond Road and the Emory and Clinch Rivers in Roane County, Tennessee, stepped from the year’s longest night’s darkness into the dawning aftermath of ashen, apocalyptic-looking cataclysm.

One county resident later said the mammoth scale and magnitude of the phenomenon was better described as a “geological event” than a mere “spill,” or as TVA’s public relations department toyed around with calling the largest inadvertent coal-ash dump in U.S. history, a “sudden, accidental release” of a “large amount of material.”

Just after midnight Dec. 22, 2008, a Tennessee Valley Authority-owned coal-ash waste containment dike was transformed by precipitation into a billion-gallon rolling, roiling, rain-saturated tsunami of ooze and goop.

The frigid molten mass slid across the Emory River and its Swan Pond wetlands toward the Emory’s confluence with the Clinch River, enveloping, damaging or destroying everything in its path, including boats, boathouses, docks, roads and railroads, bottomland farm fields and many people’s homes.

That no one died or was seriously injured is even today almost as stunning to comprehend as the event itself. Had the calamity occurred during, say, the bustle of a summer afternoon rather than the dead of December night, the result could have been one of the darkest days in living Tennessee memory.

TVA later reported in it’s “Root Cause Analysis” that a “combination of the high water content of the wet ash, the increasing height of ash [mound-storage], the construction of the sloping dikes over the wet ash, and the existence of an unusual bottom layer of ash and silt were among the long-evolving conditions that caused the ash spill at Kingston Fossil Plant on Dec. 22, 2008.”

For a little perspective on the gargantuan nature of the 5.4 million cubic-yard fury of fly-ash slurry, Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation deputy commissioner Paul Sloan told state lawmakers last session, “If you took the Great Smoky Mountains and you subdivided it in one-acre tracts – over half a million acres – the amount that spilled would be sufficient to put about 11 tons of ash on every one of those acres.”

Not surprisingly, a lot of the detritus — a whole lot — is still hanging around the area. The cleanup effort underway is massive, as it has been since just after the event. And the remaining residents nearby who haven’t been bought-out by TVA say they’re weary of the constant confrontation with the unyielding truck and train traffic, the mess, the health worries, the broken dreams and the giant New Deal-era federal corporation that has caused it all. They describe living in a state of constant headache, both figurative and, for some who say they’re suffering physical symptoms as a result of the ever-present ash residue, real.

“The Swan Pond Community prior to Dec. 22, 2008 was a normal but beautiful community, with neighbors that have been neighbors for 50 plus years,” said local resident Randy Ellis, who serves on the Roane County Long Term Recovery Committee and is vice chairman of the county’s Community Advisory Group.

“We had the beauty of the mountains and the river. This time of the year you could drive through our community and see the Christmas lights and the different families gathering at homes to celebrate the holidays,” he said. “Now, as you can see around us, what people are left are surrounded by empty houses bought by the TVA. Our once beautiful and quiet neighborhood was turned upside down.”

Group: TVA Should No Longer Get to Evade Environmental Laws, Marketplace Competition

Environmental Integrity Project Press Release, Dec. 14, 2009:

As 1st Anniversary of Kingston Coal Ash Spill Nears, EIP Report Exposes TVA’s Pollution, Poor Environmental Track Record, and Reveals How TVA Avoids Compliance with Federal Environmental Laws; EIP and Top Groups Call on White House to Reform TVA.

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Eight decades after President Franklin Delano Roosevelt created the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) to bring power to the southeastern United States, the TVA should no longer be exempt from federal environmental enforcement and the healthy influence of competition in its region, according to a major new report released today by the nonprofit Environmental Integrity Project (pdf).

In a separate letter to the White House, EIP and leading national and southeastern U.S. environmental organizations urged the Obama Administration and Congress to take action to reform the TVA. (See below.)

The new EIP report — titled “Outside the Law: Restoring Accountability to the Tennessee Valley Authority” – details how the TVA has emerged as one of the nation’s worst polluters by exploiting its special status as a federal corporation to sidestep federal regulation, avoid fines that other utilities are required to pay, and delay solutions to known environmental problems at Kingston and other TVA coal plants. Although both the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the TVA Inspector General (IG) have documented numerous violations of environmental law, the Justice Department has never taken this utility to court. Although this utility is virtually independent, completely self-financing, and responsible under the law for its own legal defenses, it has been allowed to hide behind legal doctrines meant to protect federal agencies and U.S. taxpayers.

The EIP report notes: “… the evidence in this report reveals that the Kingston spill is only the latest and most dramatic example of environmental mismanagement at one of the nation’s largest utilities. President Roosevelt established TVA nearly eighty years ago as a public utility dedicated to progressive management on behalf of the public interest, but TVA’s environmental record and conduct in recent years mock the vision that inspired its founding.”

In releasing the new report, Environmental Integrity Project Director Eric Schaeffer said: “It is time to reform the Tennessee Valley Authority and make it fully accountable for environmental misconduct. Any other utility that spilled a billion gallons of coal ash into a river would face certain federal prosecution, but the Justice Department won’t file a case against TVA. Legal doctrines that limit enforcement actions against other federal agencies shouldn’t apply to this behemoth, which by law is completely responsible for its own legal defenses, and which is financed by its own ratepayers, not the U.S. Treasury. It’s time for TVA to be treated like its competitors, and to expect prosecution for violating environmental laws.”

The EIP report points out:

  • TVA’s own Inspector General found that TVA negligence contributed to the Kingston disaster, and that TVA avoided full transparency to limit litigation following the spill.
  • TVA intended to transition its coal waste ponds from wet-to-dry systems over 20 years ago, a move that could have averted the coal ash disasters at both Kingston and Widows Creek and curb TVA’s harmful water discharges. However, no such action was taken and TVA reported to EPA that it discharged 3,433,291 pounds of toxic pollutants into surface waters in 2008 alone.
  • The TVA IG also found that TVA bypassed air emission controls at the Cumberland, Widows Creek and Bull Run coal plants, resulting in well over a thousand tons of illegal emissions. According to the IG reports, TVA delayed fixing the problem or reporting the emissions to regulatory authorities.
  • TVA is home to some of the oldest and least efficient coal plants in the U.S., and spends less on maintenance than many of its competitors. Unlike some utilities, there is little evidence that TVA is making the transition toward cleaner, low carbon source of electricity—its recalcitrance may be aided by federal law that prohibits competition within TVA’s service area.
  • Equally troubling, TVA repeatedly invokes its status as a “federal” agency to avoid responsibility for its own environmental misconduct. TVA raises issues of federal “sovereign immunity” to avoid penalties in environmental enforcement cases filed by citizens in federal court, yet TVA does not receive federal funds or tax dollars drawn from the U.S. Treasury. Limitations on the ability to recover penalties from federal agencies are supposed to protect the taxpayer— but TVA is completely self-financing, and has not received federal appropriations in decades; any fines paid by TVA need not come from the U.S. Treasury.

Robert Dreher, senior vice president for conservation law and climate change, Defenders of Wildlife, said: “Even looking beyond TVA’s recent coal ash spills and troubling record of environmental mismanagement, TVA should not be able to undermine the integrity of the legal process by claiming immunity to the enforcement of environmental laws. No corporation or agency should be above the law, especially at the expense of the environmental well-being of our citizens, wildlife and waters.”

Renée Victoria Hoyos, executive director, Tennessee Clean Water Network, said: “TVA needs reform. The disaster of December 22, 2008 and the subsequent handling of the issue demonstrated to us that TVA must be formally regulated by the US EPA like any other utility. I hope that this Administration will implement the recommendations of this report. It is simply the right thing to do.”

A separate letter sent today to the White House by EIP and over a dozen additional groups, including the Sierra Club, Defenders of Wildlife, Natural Resources Defense Council, Appalachian Voices, Tennessee Clean Water Network, Waterkeeper Alliance, Inc., Tennessee Environmental Council, United Mountain Defense, Cumberland Stewards, and Solar Valley Coalition, urges President Obama to take action to reform TVA.

The joint letter states: “We write to respectfully request that your Administration clarify that TVA is not immune from federal prosecution for the Kingston spill and other violations of federal law. We ask also that the Directors you appoint to lead TVA pledge to take specific actions to reform the agency and reduce its reliance on dirty coal-fired power plants … TVA has become little more than giant electric utility unchecked by the regulatory agencies that manage electric power production and protect the public in most of the rest of the country. The Kingston coal ash spill is only the latest and most dramatic example of environmental mismanagement at one of the nation’s largest utilities.”

The full text of the joint letter to the Obama White House is available online.

RECOMMENDED ACTION STEPS

The EIP report recommends the following steps to restore accountability at the TVA:

  • Clarify that EPA and the Justice Department Can Take TVA to Court. A directive from the White House, clarifying that the “unitary executive” theory does not prevent EPA and DOJ from taking enforcement action against TVA will help bring TVA into compliance with federal environmental laws and resolve environmental violations that have lingered for years.
  • Support Legislation to Eliminate TVA’s Special Protections. The White House and Congress should support legislation to remove TVA’s special protections, such as immunity from penalties for environmental violations, and anti-competitive measures that keep rival utilities out of its service area. TVA no longer relies on tax dollars or federal appropriations and therefore, should be as accountable as any other utility for its environmental wrongdoing.
  • Increase Environmental Oversight. Congress can play a critical role in reforming TVA through its oversight authority. The House and Senate Committees charged with TVA oversight have held multiple hearings regarding the Kingston spill, but long-term oversight of TVA’s environmental management is needed to prevent another disaster and transform TVA into a national example of environmental sustainability and clean energy production.

The EIP report recommends the following steps to reduce TVA’s environmental footprint:

  • Create a Culture of Environmental Compliance. TVA’s large and dirty environmental “footprint” is a product of its internal culture of neglect and cost-saving decisions made at the expense of the environment. Even TVA’s own inspector general reported that TVA’s “litigation strategy seems to have prevailed over transparency and accountability,” after the Kingston spill. However, the President has an opportunity to change TVA’s internal culture from the top down, starting with the appointment of new leadership to TVA’s Board of Directors. As of December 2009, President Obama named two new nominees to TVA’s nine-member Board of Directors. New Board nominees should pledge to take the specific actions below to establish greater transparency and environmental compliance at every level of TVA’s operations.
  • Switch From Wet to Dry Coal Waste Disposal and Stop Toxic Discharges. TVA must transition its wet CCW storage ponds to dry disposal systems in the immediate future. TVA promised to make this transition over 20 years ago and recently promised again to convert its wet CCW ponds to dry storage after the Kingston spill. Yet TVA owns wet coal waste impoundment at all of its coal plants, and still has not produced a timeline by which each plant will transition from wet to dry, zero-discharge systems in the near future.
  • Transition from Coal to Clean, Renewable Energy. TVA must decide whether to make investments in its aging coal-fired fleet or simply retire the oldest, most underperforming units.

To see the full text of the EIP report, go to http://www.environmentalintegrity.org.

Still Draining the Nation

Earlier this year Reason magazine offered up a much dimmer view of the Tennessee Valley Authority than that no doubt favored by the federally owned corporation’s 50-member public relations staff.

In “How Big Government Infrastructure Projects Go Wrong,” the libertarian Cato Institute’s Jim Powell cast “America’s biggest monopoly” in a light that by no means revealed it to be the economic savior and cultural redeemer of its much-publicized promise.

It was heralded as a program to build dams that would control floods, facilitate navigation, lift people out of poverty, and help America recover from the Great Depression. Yet the reality is that the TVA probably flooded more land than it protected; much of the navigation it has facilitated involves barges of coal for coal-fired power plants; people receiving TVA-subsidized electricity have increasingly lagged behind neighbors who did not; and the TVA’s impact on the Great Depression was negligible. The TVA morphed into America’s biggest monopoly, dominating an 80,000 square mile region with 8.8 million people—for all practical purposes, it is a bureaucratic kingdom subject to neither public nor private controls.

Powell’s sentiments are reflective of what seems to be a growing consensus among critics of various ideological stripes who agree on little except that the time has come for the Tennessee Valley Authority to be gone.

Today, TVA, although no longer a beneficiary of direct congressional funding, “pays none of the federal, state, and local taxes that private businesses pay,” Powell said in his article.

“As a government-backed entity similar to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the TVA can borrow money cheaper than private businesses,” said Powell. “Currently, the TVA has about $26 billion of debt.”

In a January 2009 op-ed for a local newspaper, Shaka Mitchell, at the time vice president for the Tennessee Center for Policy Research, observed that the hospitable, appreciative manner in which TVA and its leadership seems always to get handled by state and federal authorities (citizen lawsuits are applying the real heat) is typically (and tragically) symptomatic of government ownership or operation of just about anything.

When a private company screws up, someone is held accountable. People stop buying its products. Shareholders fire the CEO. The company goes bankrupt. But when a government-run company has a similar problem, no one takes the blame.

Officials at TVA don’t have to answer to shareholders or voters. Government run companies, like the TVA, are interested in one thing; maintaining their own existence. As long as they keep their jobs, they couldn’t care less about the quality – or dangers – of their product.

We are learning an important lesson about the differences between what happens when a private company and a public one impact the community negatively. Exxon had to pay over half a billion dollars to fix the mess it caused, and rightfully so. Troublingly, taxpayers will be forced to pay to clean up the TVA’s debacle.

A 2001 paper (highlighted in Powell’s Reason article) from the Northeast-Midwest Institute, a “non-partisan research organization dedicated to economic vitality, environmental quality, and regional equity,” assessed TVA in terms just as damning.

“Sixty-five years after it was created, this giant federal agency can no longer justify its existence,” wrote Richard Munson, now the senior vice president of Recycled Energy Development, in “Restructure TVA: Why the Tennessee Valley Authority Must Be Reformed.”

“Why should 242 million Americans be forced to subsidize the electricity rates of the 3 percent of Americans who happen to live in the Tennessee Valley,” asked Munson, who also testified before Congress on the subject of TVA in 1999. “There’s little doubt that TVA has become a burden to the nation’s taxpayers. What’s becoming increasingly apparent is that the status quo also harms the very Tennessee Valley residents that TVA is supposed to serve.”

Last winter a prominent longtime critic of the Tennessee Valley Authority called on President Obama to embark upon perhaps the most counterintuitive political undertaking an FDR-idolizing stimulator-in-chief could conceive of.

Writing for the Christian Science Monitor back in February, environmental activist William U. Chandler, a graduate of Harvard and the University of Tennessee, offered that if President Obama really wanted to throw his GOP detractors for a real mindbender, he’d take an aggressive run at radically reforming – and perhaps even dispensing with – the granddaddy of all New Deal boondoggles.

Obama will have to grapple with the history and the politics of this question as he ponders how to make TVA a force for more-efficient energy use, better jobs, and a low-carbon future. At the least, Obama could put TVA management on notice of his expectations. He could direct his Department of Energy and Environmental Protection Agency to define steps TVA should take to reform the 75 year-old agency. He could require – and reward – investment in energy efficiency and disincentivize the wasteful use of power. He could require TVA to create the most advanced carbon mitigation measures of any US utility – and then of any utility anywhere in the world. He could inform managers that if by 2011 this plan is not well advanced, they will be replaced, and the agency put up for sale.

Such blasphemies are the sort that once laid low the higher political ambitions of Barry Goldwater, who got himself in Dutch with the Tennessee masses for offhandedly quipping that he’d sell TVA “for a dollar” given half a chance. And speaking of “Dutch,” the plug got summarily pulled on Ronald Reagan’s job as host for General Electric Theater at around the same time, after he expressed similarly contemptuous views of the “big government” powerhouse, which he soon discovered was as “sacred as motherhood” in some quarters.

Of course, all that was long before Dec. 22, 2008, when overnight TVA’s popularity sank to levels rivaling that of a lump of coal in the public’s collective stocking.

For a little perspective on the gargantuan nature of the 5.4 million cubic yards of ash that roared forth from the Kingston Fossil Plant, which as of last summer TVA was estimating would cost up to $1.2 billion to clean up, here’s what Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation deputy commissioner Paul Sloan told state lawmakers during a hearing last session: “If you took the Great Smoky Mountains and you subdivided it in one-acre tracts – over half a million acres – the amount that spilled (at Kingston) would be sufficient to put about 11 tons of ash on every one of those acres. So that’s the scale that we’re dealing with. So, yes, this is a very long-term cleanup.”

But like the others who have for years criticized the massive agency, it’s not just TVA’s darkest-day disaster that ought to cause America to rethink TVA organization, oversight and even ownership, Chandler argued.

The Tennessee Valley Authority — an “icon of the New Deal” that also happens to have “the worst environmental record of any utility in the nation” — in fact never did “live up to its supposed goals,” he said.  In particular, its promises of bestowing collective prosperity on the region’s inhabitants fell demonstrably short: “Both during and after the Great Depression, manufacturing jobs were created faster just outside the TVA area than within it,” he wrote.

Non-TVA counties in northern Georgia and Alabama and western North Carolina in 1933 were as poor as or poorer than TVA counties, but by 1953 they were generally better off. Even rural electrification and the use of household appliances grew faster in the non-TVA south.

To be sure, TVA created jobs for some 13,000 workers, but for at least four decades, Depression-era investments in TVA dams, waterways, and recreation areas have failed to pay for themselves by any economic measure.

In his 1984 book, “The Myth of TVA,” Chandler observed that “(a)mong the nine states of the southeastern United States, there has been essentially an inverse relationship between income per capita and the extent to which the state was served by TVA.” Furthermore, he wrote, “In a critical measure of economic performance, growth and income, no evidence exists to suggest any special contribution by TVA to the development of the Tennessee Valley.”

Chandler concluded his book with words that no doubt reflect sentiments held today by far more ratepayers and taxpayers than when first published 25 years ago: “The fundamental result of the TVA experiment teaches that buying flexibility by giving away democratic control is a false bargain.”