- Historic Sites
The TVA: It Ain't What It Used to Be
What has befallen “the greatest peacetime achievement of twentieth-century America”s since the New Deal
February 1977 | Volume 28, Issue 2
TVA has been attacked, for instance, by Al Puckett, a representative of Kentucky farmers who claimed that sulfur dioxide from the agency’s coal-fired steam plants “defoliated” their crops and that TVA refused to recompense for damages for four years; by Corrine Whitehead, a landowner forced out of TVA’s Land Between the Lakes recreation area, who was outraged that the agency was selling lumber from the preserve to the Peabody Coal Company for mine timbers; by Mart Shepherd, a Kentucky landowner whose home used to have a safe water supply and good farm land before a TVA-contracted coal stripmine company changed all that, with Shepherd picking up the tab; by Arnold Miller, president of the United Mine Workers, who called TVA a “public menace” for buying coal from unsafe and nonunion deep mines and for creating a “nightmare” in Appalachia by purchasing stripmined coal; by coal operators like Cloyd McDowell of the National Independent Coal Operators Association who charged that TVA gave cost-plus contracts to its conglomerate suppliers, but bid coal down by “predatory purchasing practices” so that small firms had to cut corners or go out of business; by newspapers like the respected Louisville Courier Journal , which asked editorially, “Is the TVA Just Another Power Firm?” and answered close to an affirmative; by Tennessee Congressman Joe L. Evins, who claimed that TVA had not done anything about “price gouging” by its coal suppliers; and, finally, by Mrs. Betty Higginbotham of Cleveland, Tennessee, a senior citizen who collected over fifteen thousand signatures on a petition protesting TVA power-rate increases.
TVA’s reply to such critics has been forceful and uncompromising. A new chairman, Aubrey Wagner, argued that TVA alone of utilities in the nation has sought a “balance point” between the “polarized extremes” of environmental demands and ecocide. TVA’s problems, he said, exemplify on a large scale a question the nation as a whole has not answered: “How does a people, caught between an expanding population and a shrinking resource base, meet its day-to-day needs and at the same time reasonably ensure its future?”
A lifelong veteran of TVA, an engineer who climbed from the ranks to the top, Wagner has few apologies for TVA’s programs. “TVA views electricity as a critical catalyst for bringing about a better quality of life for the people. … We believe in the usefulness of electric power not to stimulate growth for growth’s sake, but because we know what it has done and what it can do to improve the lives of people everywhere.” TVA’s resistance to strong strip-mine control, air-pollution regulation, coal-mine health and safety laws, and other concerns pressed by its critics has been based on the “balance” theory, providing “the greatest good for the greatest number of people over the longest time,” the 6a-year-old chairman has said. He warned that if all of TVA’s critics were heeded, the valley and the nation would face “total social and economic disaster before the end of the century” because of power shortages.
TVA’s chief argument for its policies—one that has grown increasingly less effective in the region, but one that must seem disarmingly appealing to protesting ratepayers across the nation—is that it is required by law to produce power at the lowest possible rates. That it does. With almost the single exception of the Pacific Northwest, where hydro-generation from that region’s rivers still predominates, TVA produces the cheapest power in the nation with the same kind of generators and black coal that other large utilities use. One thousand kilowatt hours of power cost TVA’s six and one-half million users about $;25 in 1976, compared to $63 in New York City, $46 in Boston, $35 in Atlanta, $31 in Los Angeles, and $3o in St. Louis.
TVA’s defense of its behavior galls such agency critics as Harry Caudill, the author of Night Comes to the Cumberlands and a well-known Kentucky conservationist and public power advocate, who blames TVA’s emphasis on low rates for creating and sustaining the ruinous Appalachian strip-mining industry. “The agency is the very epitome of everything evil in the destruction of nature for gain,” Caudill charged. It is a fact that stripped coal is cheap coal. But critics of stripped coal argue that it is deceptively cheap because of the social and economic damages it brings to the people and the land. As the nation’s largest purchaser of stripped coal from a concentrated area—72 per cent of all of TVA’s coal comes from Kentucky—the agency has to bear a large share of the burden, say its critics, for what the nation now seems agreed has been nothing short of recklessness in the destruction of large parts of eastern Kentucky.