Is it time to bring TVA back to its roots?

The Tennessee Valley Authority was one of the grandest experiments of the New Deal.

It was conceived as a federal corporation that could use the power of government and the flexibility of business to improve life in a seven-state region that included parts of Kentucky. TVA also was to be a “living laboratory” for progress.

Soon after its creation in 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt was asked how he would describe TVA to skeptics. “I’ll tell them it is neither fish nor fowl,” he replied. “But whatever it is will taste awful good to the people of the Tennessee Valley.”

That was often true. But many times, when TVA ignored its original mission and focused only on providing cheap electricity, the taste could be quite bitter.

Kingston plant ash pond spill. TVA photo

The most recent example is last month’s failure of a huge coal ash holding pond at the Kingston power plant, 50 miles west of Knoxville. More than a billion gallons of toxic sludge destroyed homes, covered hundreds of acres and fouled the Emory River.

Last week, members of Congress grilled TVA officials about the environmental disaster, which could cost hundreds of millions of dollars to clean up. But it is hardly the first, or worst, time TVA has gone astray.

I spent much of the 1980s covering TVA as a Knoxville-based reporter for The Associated Press and, later, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. It is a fascinating agency. Over the past 75 years, it has shown government at both its worst and best.

TVA demonstrates fertilizers, 1930s. TVA photo

“People have forgotten all the things TVA taught the rest of the nation in the early years,” former TVA Chairman S. David Freeman told me last week. “We taught the rest of the nation about flood plain management. We had a civil service system before the (rest of the) federal government had one. TVA was the fertilizer research center for the whole world, and we developed all kinds of fertilizers. We taught soil conservation to the farmers.

“The power part of the system was the tail,” Freeman said. “I think what happened over the years was the tail became the dog.”

It started in the early 1950s, when TVA built seven of the world’s biggest coal-burning power plants because its hydroelectric dams were no longer enough to supply the region’s electricity. TVA dominated the eastern coal market and demanded low prices. The result was strip-mining that devastated Appalachia’s land and water.

In the 1960s, TVA began building the nation’s largest system of nuclear power plants. It still operates four of them; several others were started, then scrapped in the 1980s at huge expense. Some reactors were hastily built, then idled for years for costly repairs because TVA couldn’t prove they were safe.

S. David Freeman

S. David Freeman

President Jimmy Carter appointed Freeman as TVA’s chairman in 1977 with a mandate for change. The agency that had replenished the Tennessee Valley’s crop-worn land during the 1930s had become an environmental outlaw.

“I tried real hard to make TVA more environmentally sensitive,” said Freeman, who wasn’t reappointed by President Ronald Reagan in 1984. “But I’ll be frank with you: I felt like I was a heart transplant that got rejected about the time I left. The organization itself never got over its low-cost power mission as the overriding mission.”

Freeman has had a long career as a public utility executive and advocate for “green” power. He is the author of two books, Energy: The New Era (1974) and Winning Our Energy Independence (2007). At 82, he remains active as president of the Los Angeles Board of Harbor Commissioners.

Freeman recalled that one of his first jobs as a young TVA civil engineer was to design the basement floor and turbine foundation at the Kingston plant. Last year, he testified against TVA in a lawsuit brought by the state of North Carolina, which was trying to force the federal utility to obey federal air pollution laws. Freeman told the court that the Kingston plant should have been replaced with newer technology long ago.

Kingston power plant under construction, 1950. TVA photo

Kingston plant under construction. TVA photo

“The truth of the matter is that nobody dreamed when we designed that plant in 1950 that the sucker would still be running in 2009,” Freeman said last week. “I’m reasonably certain that that holding pond was designed for maybe a 30-year life, 35, maybe 40. Nobody dreamed they would be piling up that crap for 58 years.”

Since the mid-1980s, under pressure from conservatives in the White House and Congress, TVA has given up most of its non-power duties. “TVA had a good 50-year run and then it became just another utility,” Freeman said.

We now find ourselves with the worst economy since the one that led to TVA’s creation. President-elect Barack Obama talks about the need for bold, creative government action to tackle big problems the way TVA and Roosevelt’s other “alphabet soup” agencies did in the 1930s.

Rather than creating new bureaucracies, maybe Obama and Congress should give existing agencies such as TVA new missions. What if TVA were tasked with developing renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind, or demonstrating new technologies to solve environmental problems? If such a thing as “clean coal” technology really exists, why not have TVA show how it could work?

After all, Freeman said, “There’s no excuse for the federal government owning the power system in the Tennessee Valley if it’s not going to provide some other benefits, not just to the local people but to the nation.”