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End TVA's special treatment under law, enviros urge Obama

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Representatives from 15 environmental advocacy groups have called on President Obama to end the Tennessee Valley Authority's immunity from federal prosecution for its Kingston coal ash disaster and other violations of federal law.

In a letter [pdf] sent to the president Dec. 14, the environmentalists point to several examples of the utility flouting the law and engaging in mismanagement and coverups. TVA is a federal corporation that operates independently and is self-financed.

The letter states:

Any other utility would have been taken to court by the Justice Department long ago. But we understand that some in the Justice Department believe that its hands are tied under the "unitary executive theory," which limits the Department's ability to prosecute another federal agency under Executive Orders No. 12,146 and No. 12,088. The unitary executive doctrine was adopted in part to avoid conflict between the Justice Department's duty to prosecute and its duty to defend federal agencies accused of violating the law. However, this policy should not apply to TVA, as it is responsible for its own defense in legal matters.

Among the illegal actions pointed to in the letter were violations of Clean Air Act permitting requirements at over a dozen of TVA's coal-fired units and the bypassing of pollution controls at three different TVA coal plants. TVA failed to report these actions as required -- actions that ultimately resulted in over 2 million pounds of unreported emissions being dumped into the air.

The letter also points to the report [pdf] released earlier this year by TVA's own Inspector General that documented careless coal ash management practices at the company, lax maintenance and what the letter calls "an internal corporate culture more likely to cover-up rather than acknowledge and eliminate known environmental risks."

It was signed by representatives of the Environmental Integrity Project, Sierra Club, Defenders of Wildlife, Natural Resources Defense Council, Appalachian Voices, Tennessee Clean Water Network, Tennessee Environmental Council, United Mountain Defense, Cumberland Stewards, Solar Valley Coalition, Waterkeeper Alliance, WV Highlands Conservancy, Mountain Watershed Association, Youghiogheny Riverkeeper and Friends of Hurricane Creek.

The same day the groups sent the letter to President Obama, the Environmental Integrity Project released a report titled "Outside the Law: Restoring Accountability to the Tennessee Valley Authority" [pdf] that details how TVA has exploited its special status as a federal corporation to sidestep federal regulations and avoid fines that other utilities are required to pay.

"Actions ought to have consequences," EIP Director Eric Schaeffer said during a press conference call announcing the report's release. "No power company should be above the law."

The report recommends that the White House and Congress support legislation removing any special legal protections for TVA and to use their oversight authority to promote reform. However, EIP does not support privatizing TVA as some of its critics have suggested, because it believes the president and lawmakers have a unique opportunity to transform the company into a leading example of environmental stewardship and clean energy production.

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