'60 Minutes' Condemns Coal Industry, Misses Government Role in TVA Spill

Attacking industry is an old standby for “60 Minutes,” and the Oct. 4 segment against coal companies was no exception.


Lesley Stahl criticized the industry for accidents, using the huge 2008 spill in Kingston, Tenn. to push for the federal government to label coal ash as hazardous waste. But Stahl ignored one crucial detail about the Kingston spill … the federal government’s responsibility for it.


Just days before Christmas 2008, a retaining wall burst releasing more than a billion gallons of “thick black” coal sludge that “swallowed” up homes in eastern Tennessee.


“Here the Tennessee Valley Authority, the TVA, dumped 1,000 tons of coal ash every day into a wet pond near the plant, slowly amassing a waste cake 60 feet high,” Stahl told viewers. What Stahl didn’t explain to her audience was that TVA is a public utility – owned in fact by the federal government.


Instead of calling the federal government to account for that disaster, which according to NBC “Nightly News” was “30 times larger than the 1989 Exxon-Valdez disaster,” Stahl referenced the TVA as though it were a private company speaking only of “power plant executives.” “60 Minutes” also described the Kingston spill as “100 times larger than the Exxon Valdez and it was all coal ash.”


“What really infuriates them [people in Kingston] is power plant executives telling them the coal ash is a safe as dirt,” Stahl said.


Stahl’s omission was right in line with past media treatment of the spill. In December 2008 and January 2009, only a small percentage (11 and 13 percent respectively) of newspaper and network reports mentioned that the TVA is under federal ownership.


In fact, one-third of the broadcast stories presented environmentalists’ attacks on the entire coal industry – as if a private industry had anything to do with the Tennessee disaster.


NBC even asserted Dec. 27 that the TVA spill was giving “the coal industry’s clean coal campaign a black eye.” But the spill should have given a black eye to the concept of government-run businesses.


Stahl also took her own shot at the coal industry, telling lobbyist Jim Roewer “I don’t think many people really trust the utility busi–industry. I’m sorry to tell you” after he would not “guarantee” that all coal plants in the country are “safe.”