TVA Management Took a Holiday

While residents of Harriman, TN, spent the Christmas holiday digging out from several feet of coal ash and sludge, TVA’s senior management was on holiday and apparently unavailable.

Management’s absence once the media reached the scene and started feeding back startling pictures and in-depth stories left huge opportunities for dominant roles by environmental critics and angry, dislocated residents.

This was a lesson in how not to handle a crisis. Basic steps seemingly were either abandoned, or never even considered. They certainly have not been evident.

After a press conference by TVA CEO Tom Kilgore earlier in the week, the giant government-owned utility was represented in news stories by an apparently midlevel spokesmen and clean up crew members. Environmental critics and those living through this nightmare “own” media news stories. For instance, on the morning after Christmas story on NBC’s Today Show (click on video at bottom).

Did TVA establish a command center for regular media updates? Hard to say, but the evidence indicates the Authority did not. With a crisis this large, why wasn’t a senior management representative on scene throughout to provide updates? Did TVA recognize just how big a story this is, especially during a major holiday? As a significant coal consumer, and with a much more environmental-friendly Congress and administration braced to take control of Washington, what, if any, thought was given to the ramifications of this story and the need to maintain a primary role in news reports?

Residents swamped by the goo lost their Christmas and some even lost their homes. All are concerned about the long term environmental and health effects. Early assurances that tests indicate no threats are qualified and more tests are promised. When they hear about things like mercury and arsenic, they are alarmed. And the future threat this sludge has on the drinking water of tens of thousands still is unclear.

TVA’s apologies and preliminary reports on tests of the sludge don’t do much. Harriman residents and all TVA customers needed to see and hear from senior management on a regular basis, from the scene.

Meanwhile, the energy industry’s controversial case for coal as a fuel for electric generation has been dealt a serious blow. TVA’s low level and low key participation in this situation has handed new ammunition to the arguments of environmentalists opposed to coal in any form and might strengthen their case for a renewables-only portfolio.

Leave a Reply