The TVA: It Ain't What It Used to Be

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Environmental critics pointed also to Seeber’s admission on a witness stand in a federal court that he had changed a staff report critical of TVA’s Columbia and Normandy dams because it was “too negative,” as further evidence that the agency was more interested in self-protection than public candor. After the Whitesburg, Kentucky, Mountain Eagle reported that the TVA private security force was maintaining files on critics of the agency’s Tellico Dam project, TVA began charging the newspaper $6.75 an hour for time spent by agency file clerks in supplying information which the paper requested. Citing such unusual actions, United Mine Workers president Arnold Miller told a Senate oversight panel, “I am sorry to say that TVA has not been a friend to us. I am even sorrier to say that I don’t think TVA gives a damn.”

Seeber replied that he changed the staff assessment of the dams because it said “too much about the ‘bad’ about the project and not enough about the ‘good.’ ” He defended the information charges to the critical Whitesburg newspaper on the ground that the public should not have to subsidize the furnishing of information that is not directly related to public business. Charges from such critics as Arnold Miller came because the agency had a reputation for being more than an average utility, he said. To critics like Richard Ayres of the National Resources Defense Council, who called TVA a “major obstruction” to the nation’s air cleanup program because of its opposition to chemical scrubbers, Seeber cited TVA research discrediting the Environmental Protection Agency’s insistence that the costly devices were needed to cleanse sulfur dioxide from TVA smokestacks. As a final rejoinder, Seeber said, “We believe TVA has the largest and most comprehensive program of environmental activities of any power producer in the country—as it should have.” In 1976, however, the Supreme Court refused to hear TVA’s arguments that it should not have to monitor its sulfur dioxide emissions continuously.

As the debate over public power versus private power bloomed again—as it inevitably seemed destined to do—and as the issues of rates, strip mining, and nuclear power received closer attention, TVA got more scrutiny as a prototype of a national “yardstick.” That probing, in time, may answer the question of whether TVA has been, as Forbes magazine said, a “yardstick with less than 36 inches,” or as Paul Wieck of the New Republic observed, “a little off course, maybe, but still a damn sight better than the private power trust.” Meanwhile, TVA officials have comforted themselves with a statement by former chairman Gordon Clapp that hangs over almost every executive desk: “TVA is controversial because it is consequential; let it become insignificant to the public interest, an agency of no particular account, and the people will stop arguing about it.”