Thumbnail: At a time when people want answers, Tennessee Valley Authority has responded with a special coloring book. If that wasn’t enough, it was issued in the name of Allen Fossil Plan which was closed for several years because of toxic waste. The following is a column published in last week’s issue of the Memphis Flyer.
TVA Superheroes to the Rescue!
by TOM JONES
Faced with serious questions about its operations, environmental commitment, and budget priorities, what’s the Tennessee Valley Authority’s latest response to the possible loss of its largest customer, Memphis? “Let them eat cake,” packaged as a 20-page coloring book — Power With Purpose, Memphis Edition.
Once again demonstrating its tone-deafness, TVA released its T.E.A.M. (TVA Energy Allies Member) coloring book October 15th under the name of the Allen Fossil Plant. While the coloring book’s timing is strange enough, coming in the midst of a serious and high-stakes debate about TVA’s future in Memphis, launching a coloring book as a product of the Allen Fossil Plant suggests a bout of amnesia. That plant was closed — or “retired,” as TVA puts it — in March 2018 in the wake of an outcry about the 3.5 million cubic yards of toxin-laden coal ash that remains here.
In 2017, high levels of arsenic and other toxins were found in the plant’s monitoring wells, sparking widespread concern about the risks to Memphis’ drinking water. The Allen Fossil Plant is a poor chapter in TVA’s history and it’s beyond odd that TVA dedicated this coloring book to that plant, which TVA operated in Memphis for half a century.
In retrospect, doing what was right at the plant throughout the years didn’t require superheroes. It just required that TVA pay attention to the city on the western edge of its service area. But Memphis never seemed to matter.
After being ignored by TVA for decades, Memphis decided there must be a better way. Looking west across the river, Memphis saw a yellow brick road leading to competitive energy prices. It led away from TVA, to buying power on the open market and paying a lot less money for electric power than it had been paying TVA for nearly a century.ad More
TVA would have none of that, so it created an ace team of comic book superheroes for Memphis, promising to prevent Memphis from leaving the fold. Backed by a slick public relations and lobbying campaign, and checks written to what it saw as politically influential organizations, TVA finally discovered Memphis, after years of donations and incentives that never made their way west of the Tennessee River.
What else did Memphis get from this energy giant that pays its president an annual salary of $8.1 million and sports a fleet of private aircraft? TVA went overboard and printed a coloring book, the message of which is a deliberate oversimplification of how TVA generates power. Although TVA says this coloring book was created as an educational tool for elementary school children, TVA apparently hopes that if it can teach the children of Memphis how TVA generates power, then perhaps that knowledge will rub off on their parents.
“The free coloring book features stickers, trading cards, and age-appropriate information … and features ethnically diverse superheroes drawn against the backdrop of the iconic Memphis landscapes,” TVA’s website announced. Naturally, the superheroes all wear a TVA patch.
So, who are the coloring book’s superheroes? There’s Environmental Eddy, Fossil Fred, Solar Sally, Natural Gas Nita, Transmission Ted, and Windy Walda, each featured on a trading card you can remove from the coloring book and swap with your friends. There’s even a page of colorful stickers designed to win over any five-year-old’s heart.
It’s BYOC (bring your own crayons) to color illustrations of all of TVA’s superheroes, plus Killowatt Kim, Hydro Henry, and Nuclear Nella. Inside the slick full-color front cover there’s a caricature of President Franklin Roosevelt that eerily resembles Boss Crump.
As Memphians open their electric bills these days, it’s with the knowledge that they pay the highest percentage of their incomes for energy in the nation, according to the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy. Maybe a coloring book will ease the pain. Or maybe this coloring book is a subtle reminder that, historically, coloring has been considered inferior to drawing, much like Memphis has been to TVA over the years.
Or perhaps this coloring book is little more than an expensive public relations blunder bearing a less-than-subtle warning to Memphis: Stay within the lines.
Tom Jones is the editor of Smart City Blog.