The Environmental Journal of Southern Appalachia

Clean-energy advocates take demands to base of TVA towers and power

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IMG 4207Alex Pulsipher holds a sign demanding that TVA transition to 100 percent renewable energy at a rally Wednesday in Market Square in Knoxville. Courtesy Amy Rawe/Southern Alliance for Clean Energy

Varied environmental groups offer unified plea for clean energy, coal ash management and accountability from TVA

It was people power generating energy at Market Square in downtown Knoxville on Wednesday.

A coalition of civic and environmental groups and their representatives met at the bottom of the two Tennessee Valley Authority towers urging the public utility to reopen meetings to public comment; swear off all fossil fuels by 2030; and carefully tend to the needs of those affected by coal ash and devise a plan to contain it for the safety of current and future generations.

The event was punctuated by a march around the Market Square block where some 60 sign-waving and chanting marchers received supportive horn honks from motorists and encouragement from multitudes of outdoor diners — some of whom were handed information sheets and may have just been introduced to the real concept and causes of climate change.

The last portion of the event featured coal-ash workers, a widow, orphan and wife sharing the pain associated with cleanup of the Kingston coal ash spill, which sent a wicked stew of slurry through areas adjacent to that coal plant in December 2008. Dozens of workers laboring under a contractor for TVA eventually developed serious illnesses and died. 

Other coal-ash issues faced by TVA include recent reports that a playground and sports field adjacent to its Bull Run Fossil Plant in Claxton, Tennessee were contaminated with potentially deadly byproducts of coal ash mounded for storage nearby.

Despite a decades-long effort to reduce local plant production, TVA is still a notable contributor to fossil-fuel emissions, ranging from its coal plants (which, including Bull Run, are up for retirement soon) to its natural gas-fired plants. Attendees at Wednesday’s rally called for a complete retirement of TVA carbon emissions and a transition to the use of purely renewable electricity

TVA likely plans to replace the bulk of its power generated from coal-fired plants with natural-gas derived electricity.

Another lingering problem for TVA is the storage of ash generated by the combustion of coal at its remaining coal plants, and that was also a concern raised Wednesday.

The coalition of groups organizing the rally and pressure campaign included Southern Alliance for Clean Energy; Sierra Club; Sunrise Movement; Appalachian Voices; Center for Biological Diversity; and Jobs for Justice. Together, they represent the Tennessee Valley Energy Democracy Movement, the central organizer of the event.

“We’re all this movement together,” said Brady Watson, a civic engagement coordinator with SACE. TVA is a public power entity, he said, “and it’s really critical that the public speaks out and makes its voice heard.”

The speakers were poised and well prepared and delivered their message in straightforward fashion.

One thing they all wanted was — at least virtually — an audience with TVA board members, which has not been provided since the Covid-19 pandemic set hold in the U.S.

The rally was organized to occur on the day of the latest TVA board meeting, which was Wednesday morning.

“There was absolutely no public input at that meeting today, so we’ve brought our comments out here,” Watson told the crowd of roughly 60 people and a number of curious and generally supportive onlookers.

“We’ve seen the effects,” said Isabella Killius with Sunrise Movement, “of not including the public in what we do with our energy system. It can destroy communities, and people’s health, and families.”

“These demands are addressing what we think TVA can do for the valley and the vision we have for the Tennessee Valley,” Killius said.

“TVA is shirking its responsibilities by continuing to invest in dirty fossil fuels, while ignoring the public’s calls for investments in energy efficiency and renewables that promote healthier communities across the valley and reduce customer bills,” said Maggie Shober, the director of utility reform for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.

She added that as of 2019, Tennessee had the 8th-highest electricity costs in the nation.

Shober said that TVA has the scientific expertise, infrastructure and wherewithal to reduce its climate footprint.

“The real disappointment here is that TVA is such a lost opportunity; there is so much potential for TVA to be better.

“TVA has led the way in the past and can lead us today out of the climate emergency.” 

Increased reliance on fossil gas, with its leaky delivery systems, high global warming potential and methane emissions, is a nonstarter, she said.

Following the march around the Market Square block in downtown Knoxville that was met by tourists taking video, honks and shouts of enthusiasm — and one heckler with a vague message — speakers included people all too familiar with coal ash and its effects, especially for those involved in its cleanup.

One widow and one orphan of cleanup workers thanked event organizers, and one man who helped clean up the Kingston spill lamented potential health hazards he brought home from work following work on the cleanup. More than 50 workers associated with the cleanup of the Kingston coal slurry spill have died.

“We need more turnouts like this,” Jason Williams told the crowd.

563757C5 C926 48D3 9928 2E37CB0B5735 1 105 cJason Williams helped clean up the site of the 2008 Kingston coal slurry spill and warned against complacency against the dangers of coal ash. Courtesy Amy Rawe/Southern Alliance for Clean Energy

He has five grandchildren, and “three were affected in some way by coal ash I brought home to them.

“It’s radiation poisoning, is what it is,” Williams said.

TVA responded at length to a Hellbender Press request for comment on the rally and participant demands

Per TVA spokesman Jim Hopson:

“In May 2021, TVA’s Board of Directors endorsed a Strategic Intent and Guiding Principles document that lays out our plan to build on our industry-leading carbon-reduction,” Hopson said in an email.

“We aspire to a net-zero goal by 2050 and are already working in partnership with government and private agencies to explore necessary innovations in advanced nuclear technology, energy storage and carbon capture to achieve that goal,” Hopson said.

Per coal ash: “TVA has committed to managing our coal combustion residuals in an environmental responsible manner based on scientific data and industry best practices.”

As for public input, Hopson said: 

“At its meeting on August 18 that was streamed live on the Internet, TVA’s board clearly stated its intent to resume in-person public meetings and listening sessions as soon as public health conditions allowed. The board has and will continue to encourage written comments, even after in-person meetings resume.”

(This story has been updated to correct the name of the Sunrise Movement and its accompanying link).

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