Staff Photo by Patrick Smith A broken retaining wall gives way to sludge covered with grass seed, fertilizer and straw blanket the Swan Pond Circle Road area after TVA's Dec. 22 coal fly ash spill. Workers continue to remove the coal fly ash sediment covering over 300 acres near Harriman, Tenn.
WASHINGTON — Two Tennessee congressmen say they hope to include $25 million in the federal economic stimulus bill to help TVA’s cleanup efforts after December’s massive coal ash spill.
Reps. Zach Wamp, R-Tenn., and Lincoln Davis, D-Tenn., say the funds would ease the burden on Tennessee Valley Authority ratepayers, as the utility pays more than $1 million a day on the cleanup.
“The ash spill is going to increase our rates. Everybody knows it,” Rep. Wamp said. “The $25 million is to help local governments. I know TVA is committed to paying for the cleanup, but they can’t borrow money because of the cap on their debt levels, so it’s going to be passed on to ratepayers.”
But the proposal has drawn fire from other lawmakers, including Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., who said the federal aid has no place in a stimulus bill designed to kick-start the country’s ailing economy.
“It’s a discredit to the whole process to in any way allude to (the aid) as a stimulus,” Sen. Corker said. “This is exactly the kind of thing that causes Americans to be so discontented with Congress. That is not a stimulus. If people want to talk about this as the 2009 pork package, that’s a different thing.”
An aide to Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., who earlier said he would support efforts to obtain federal dollars for the cleanup, said in a statement, “if there is a federal pilot program to deal with coal ash, Kingston would be an ideal location. But cleaning up this spill is ultimately TVA’s responsibility.”
Stephen Smith, executive director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, said the planned request “looks and smells to me like an earmark.” He said he doesn’t understand the rationale that taxpayers should be paying for the cleanup.
“I hope TVA gets lots of money out of the stimulus package for innovative, alternative power,” he said. “But I don’t know that cleaning up a screw-up was what President Obama had in mind.”
On Dec. 22, the wall of an earthen landfill split at the Kingston Fossil Plant, pouring about 1.1 billion gallons of coal-ash sludge — some of which contained such toxic metals as arsenic and chromium — onto nearby land and into the Emory River.
Reps. Wamp and Davis defended their proposal to clean up the muck, saying the funding should be considered as a disaster supplemental funding request, given that heavy rains likely contributed to the collapse of the earthen wall at the Kingston plant.
They said TVA officials, who could not be reached for comment, did not request the federal funding but have agreed that it would help their cleanup efforts.
“It would be consistent and appropriate to use federal dollars to pay for the cleanup since TVA is a federal entity,” Rep. Davis also said in a statement.
Rep. Wamp agreed that the aid does not fit the description of a stimulus, but he said Democrats, who control both chambers of Congress, already have loaded the $825 billion stimulus bill down with provisions that aren’t specifically aimed at creating jobs. The House is expected to vote on the bill this week.
“The point I’m making is, if you’re going to do this and spend all this money, I’m going to make the case that the ratepayers should get help,” Rep. Wamp said. “It’s not their fault that the spill happened.”
Rep. Wamp added that TVA, unlike privately owned utilities, has been tasked by Congress with land and water stewardship. Although TVA used to receive federal funding for its conservation efforts, Congress has not provided that funding for over a decade, he said.
Rep. Wamp said he hopes to insert the funding during conference negotiations after the Senate passes the bill, which is expected.
Residents near the ash spill were mixed on the proposed aid.
Jason Robertson, 20, of Harriman, said the cleanup is TVA’s responsibility and the federal aid “amounts to a bailout.”
But Kingston Mayor Troy Beets said he thinks the $25 million request is a good thing.
“It’s probably just some congressmen trying to help their constituency,” said Mr. Beets, who also is the chairman of the Roane County Commission. “The federal government does help out in areas where things like this have happened. Look at all the money spent on New Orleans after Katrina.”
Garvin Morris, a retiree who moved to Harriman to fish in the Emory River inlet now filled in with ash sludge, said TVA will need all the help it can get.
“I’d say everything they can put in there will be needed,” he said. “I think (the proposed $25 million) will help the ratepayers. The tax portion split over the country would be a small amount.”
Pam Sohn has been reporting or editing Chattanooga news for 25 years. A Walden’s Ridge native, she began her journalism career with a 10-year stint at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. She came to the Chattanooga Times Free Press in 1999 after working at the Chattanooga Times for 14 years. She has been a city editor, Sunday editor, wire editor, projects team leader and assistant lifestyle editor. As a reporter, she also has covered the police, ...