The inspector general of the Tennessee Valley Authority says in its latest report that coal plant workers have not been adequately guarded against potentially dangerous exposures.
The TVA’s Office of the Inspector General examined the safety regulations, procedures and hazards at TVA’s eight coal plants in operation between January 2017 and June 2020. Its report specifically examines TVA’s “industrial hygiene” program, which is designed to determine the extent of employee exposure to hazards and methods to reduce exposures to “acceptable levels of risk.”
The OIG found that TVA does not conduct a formal risk assessment of health hazards at its coal plants, so the utility did not evaluate the severity and likelihood of hazards. The authority also neglected to identify some threats. TVA did not document the danger of mold, extreme heat, radiation and chemical hazards like ammonia, hydrogen, nitric acid, nitrogen oxide and calcium oxide, also known as pebble lime.
Two employee injuries evaluated in the report involved pebble lime and nitric acid, which were not listed as chemical hazards. TVA identifies between 150 and 1,500 hazardous chemicals at each site but does not indicate whether the chemicals pose risks to employee health.
Some adverse conditions identified during assessments did not result in mitigative action. Specifically, TVA did not address four occurrences of elevated silica, which is present in coal byproducts and limestone used in pollution control systems. Breathing in crystalline silica particles may cause silicosis, lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and kidney disease, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
As of February, TVA had not placed the employees with documented silica exposures under medical surveillance. Due to the lack of repeated sampling, it’s unclear whether employees continued to have exposure for an extended period.
To examine medical follow-ups, OIG selected five employees with documented exposures to hazards within the past three years. None of the employees’ exposures were documented in their medical records, and two of the employees were not notified about their exposures.
TVA may have also mischaracterized the risk level of hazards like ammonia, which safety consultants noted as one of the most significant risks at certain sites.
Closures present risks
Employees at the Bull Run coal plant reported potential leaks of ammonia, nitrogen and sulfur dioxide. This plant is expected to close in 2023, and the OIG warns that the risk of encountering health hazards at retiring plants may be exacerbated by “degrading equipment and changing processes.”
The report also says that TVA did not adequately monitor the three coal plants that were retiring during the evaluation period. The Paradise plant, for example, closed in early 2020, but the last safety assessment was in the fall of 2018 — even though the plant continued to generate electricity and kept a nearly full staff during its remaining time.
The inspector general says the TVA also does not have sufficient staff overseeing safety. One full-time employee, the industrial hygiene manager, monitors 50 coal, gas and hyrdopower plants and three nuclear plants. This oversight level could be leaving TVA employees “vulnerable to potentially overlooked or insufficiently mitigated health hazards,” the report says.
Workers can help identify unsafe conditions and incidents, but the industrial hygiene manager and safety consultants provided most of the input for the TVA’s hazard identification process.
TVA’s monitoring efforts were limited to annual assessments, which sometimes did not reflect hazards identified by the industrial hygiene manager. Mercury, a recognized risk, was not assessed at any plant during OIG’s investigation.
TVA management reviewed the draft report prior to publication and provided plans for six of OIG’s 11 recommendations. Those include conducting a formal assessment of health hazards at coal plants; assessing worst-case conditions for all dust exposures, including silica; determining if additional staffing is needed for the industrial hygiene program; and developing a plan for controlling health hazards at retiring plants.