Three days before Christmas, coal-ash retention pond located in East Tennessee collapsed, spilling millions of gallons of toxic sludge onto 300 acres of land covering local homes and businesses in the area, as well as the nearby Emory River. The pond was maintained by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) as a retention pool for the company’s coal-fired power plant located in the area. The retaining wall holding in the sludge spanned two-thirds of a mile. Despite TVA’s knowledge of the problem, the particular wall that collapsed and other similar walls that TVA used to hold their coal-ash waste were denied a $25 million an overhaul in 2003. Many of the local resident’s homes and businesses were destroyed only a few days before the Christmas holiday.

The CEO of TVA, Tom Kilgore, testified before the Senate Committee on Environment and Public at the committee’s meeting on Thursday. The committee, led by chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), focused on the lack of oversight of coal-ash pond storage methods practiced by TVA and other entities throughout the United States. There is no federal regulation of this practice, and in the case of TVA, there is also no state regulation. Essentially, TVA was policing itself.

The affected locals, seeking compensation for this tragedy, have sought help from high-profile environmental activist Erin Brockovich. Most will remember her from the biographic film in 2000 bearing her name as the title. Julia Roberts won an Oscar for Best Actress for her portrayal of Ms. Brockovich in the dramatization of Brockovich’s first fight against the energy supplier Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E). The plot involves Brockovich discovering a systematic attempt by PG&E to cover-up the industrial poisoning of a town’s water supply, for which PG&E was responsible. Brockovich fights to bring the company to justice.

Once again, Ms. Brockovich has the opportunity to bring a negligent energy supplier to justice. She visited Kingston, Tennessee on January 8 to meet with the locals affected by the incident. Her preliminary reports were that the people affected by the catastrophe have not received satisfactory or consistent answers from TVA. Hopefully, Ms. Brockovich will be able to use her notoriety and knowledge of potential legal remedies to get the townspeople the answers they deserve.

Brent Baxley

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