I wonder if the PR flacks at the Tennessee Valley Authority have ever read the classic book, Toxic Sludge is Good for You. That thought occurred to me after reading how the TVA tweaked and twisted its talking points on the massive coal ash spill last month, which flooded Harriman, Tennessee with a billion gallons of toxic coal ash sludge.
In a memo obtained by the Associated Press, drafted the day after the massive coal ash retention pond broke at the Kingston Fossil Plant, the TVA referred to the disaster as a "catastrophe". But by the time that document went to the news media, the word "catastrophe" was changed to "sudden, accidental release."
Come to think of it, I guess you could call the leak of TVA's original -- more accurate and honest -- memo a "sudden, accidental release," too.
The AP report confirms what concerned local citizens have been saying in the wake of the catastrophe, that TVA is more concerned with covering up than cleaning up its mess. Critics have accused the nation's largest utility of downplaying the extent of the damage to downstream communities and the potential toxicity of the spilled ash. Or, as TVA labeled the massive spill, the "release of this large amount of material."
Some language in TVA's original memo was simply removed, such as reference to the "risk to public health and risk to the environment, as well as mention of the need to measure water quality to determine the "acute threat" to fish.
Even more unforgivable, the information TVA released to the public described the fly ash waste as containing "inert material not harmful to the environment." Well, what about all the arsenic, cadmium, chromium and other heavy metals in the sludge that can cause cancer? That sounds pretty harmful to me. Or maybe TVA does want people to believe that toxic sludge is good for them, after all?
TVA's actions certainly haven't reassured spill victims like Sarah McCoin. She questions why if fly ash is not hazardous to her family's health, then why is TVA now warning local residents not to let their pets drink the water, to keep their kids away from the sludge, and to avoid breathing the ash?
The AP story offers this damning observation on memo-gate from Noel Holston, a public relations specialist at the University of Georgia: "I can't imagine that anyone who sees these additions and deletions would not conclude that the final version is softer and less alarming than the earlier wording. The fact is they whittled away at this until it said something a little less frightening than what it originally said."
TVA: Truth Voluntary Always
This post originally appeared on NRDC's blog.