Commentary: TVA’s Towns Are High and Dry; Bottom Line Is Still under Water

News reports put the federal utility’s debt at $23 billion. But a quick look at the agency’s website shows a wealth of flood control, conservation, and development activities. There may even be progress on the agency’s troubled relationship with coal. Tom Bennett offers more in his open letter to TVA.

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With more than 85 years in operation, it’s no wonder the Tennessee Valley Authority likes to highlight its history and heritage in its public website.

But there’s more on the agency’s “Internet mind” than just the past. There’s information on TVA’s 8-year-old Clean Air Act settlement with EPA, information on the agency’s financial health, and much more.

For example, you’ll also learn how its cheap electric power is enjoyed by 10 million customers like me in parts of seven states. And how its 2006 Land Policy is teaching us to respect and cooperate with each other. The site even has the best bass and trout fishing spots.  Then there’s the TVA model river-forecasting system.

For us it’s notable, too,  that TVA has recently gathered 20 “TVA Heritage” feature articles such as “Classroom for the World,”  “Enduring Model: the Tennessee Valley, where the electric cooperative was invented,” “Norris: American Ideal,” and “Powering World War II.”  The bylines include James Agee, Halie Forstner and David Levinthal.  These features are deep and rich.

TVA, your 2011 Clean Air Act Settlement with your fellow federal entity Environmental Protection Agency is in its eighth year.   With your steady compliance, you appear determined to eventually de-fossilize completely. For now, you agree through that settlement to “modernize coal-power plants.”

The Cumberland coal-fired power plant in north central Tennessee remains in operation. TVA has closed six coal-fired plants and plans to close two more. TVA reached an air-quality agreement with the EPA eight years ago. The utility developed hydro-power plants initially but turned heavily to coal-fired production later in its history. These emissions were blamed for air quality problems in the Tennessee Valley and Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The agency was also criticized for the environmental impact its purchase of surface-mined coal had on Central Appalachia. (via TVA Flickr)

We in North Carolina are happy to observe how all TVA fossil plants are in other states – Alabama, Kentucky and Tennessee.

Those named Kingston (where in 2008 there occurred the largest coal ash spill in U.S. history), Cumberland, Gallatin, and Shawnee remain in operation.  Bull Run and the misnamed Paradise face closure by 2023.  Allen, Colbert, John Sevier, Johnsonville, Watts Bar and Widows Creek — four that dated as far back as 1951 — have ceased making power with coal.

If the current EPA administrator spoke accurately in September 2019 about how a White House executive order had ended environmental regulations, no such reality is expressed in any of the TVA fossil fuel coal-plant thumbnails.

Modernize is the word for them and their closure for good, shifting all the way to clean energy, seems the future.

TVA power, you’re blessedly cheap.   Living in the Tennessee Valley, we enjoy electric rates lower than 70 percent of the country, according to your web site.

TVA, your “tax equivalent” payments to state and local governments in 2019 total $547,742,274, including $3,149,518 to North Carolina.

Your 2006 Land Policy identifies “suitable industrial and recreational tracts” along the lakes. You are enforcing TVA Act section 26A requiring permits to be acquired before any shoreline construction,  such as building docks or stabilizing the shoreline.

The rod and reel and the fly rod make your interest list, too. You have Bassmaster magazine’s list of the best bass lakes in the Southeast, and these six in TVA are rated as follows: 1, Guntersville; 2, Chickamauga; 6, Pickwick; 15, Watts Bar; 19, Wheeler; and 20, Cherokee.

This War Information Office document links TVA electrical production to efforts to win World War II. The Manhattan Project relied on TVA power to produce materials for the atom bomb in the “secret city” of Oak Ridge, Tennessee. (Wikicommons)

And for, you say, “the more meditative art of trout fishing,” you recommend the tail-waters below Norris, South HolstonWilbur and Blue Ridge dams. “Other locations with good trout fisheries include Tims Ford, Chatuge, Fort Patrick Henry, NormandyNottely and Cherokee.”

TVA, it’s my own observation — and not that of any staffers of yours — that your world-class hydroelectric power system is what makes a typical TVA river town no miniature Venice, Italy.  Here it how it is explained at the site:

“TVA has a sophisticated system of dams to control flooding along the Tennessee River watershed, and each year it prevents about $280 million in flood damage in the TVA region and along the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers.

“To date, the operation of this system has prevented over $7.9 billion in flood losses across the Tennessee Valley, including about $7.2 billion in damage averted at Chattanooga—the Valley’s most flood-prone city.”

What else is going on, TVA?

Your annual financial report posted earlier this month has details of how you are “delivering strong results and strengthening partnerships, including with local power distributors.”

During the 12 months ending Sept. 30, 2018, TVA had $11.2 billion in operating revenues, a five percent increase from the same period a year ago.

Over TVA today,  there loom two sobering twenty-threes.

One is that TVA is $23 billion in debt.  The other is that amount is part of the $23 trillion now owed by the federal government under Donald Trump, according to the Chattanooga Times Free Press and the National Debt Clock, respectively.

TVA, in our opinion,  and if the local power distributors here are any examples, you should help them find females — with their know-how in managing budgets —  to serve on those local distributors’ boards of directors.

Tom Bennett is a retired newsman. Email him at farblumtn07@gmail.com

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