“Cover up” of TVA coal ash is not clean up

Sites like TVA's Bull Run plant demonstrate the just how close to waterways coal ash is often stored, as seen in the lower right of the photo above, and the threat it poses if simply left covered in an unlined pit. (© Nancy Pierce/Flight by Southwings)

Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) proposes to leave toxic coal ash indefinitely in leaking, unlined pits along Tennessee waterways if a draft plan under review becomes final.

In its draft plan, TVA plans to construct a cap over coal ash waste where it is stored, even though the utility’s own monitoring data shows that groundwater near these sites is being polluted with toxic metals. This “cover up” approach would keep the pollution in contact with groundwater, allowing contamination to continue unmitigated.

Coal ash is the toxic byproduct of burning coal for electricity generation and, until 2014, there were no guidelines for how to handle it. Common industry practice led to millions of cubic yards of the toxin-laden ash sludge sitting in unlined, leaky pits along rivers, lakes, and on top of groundwater. Structural failure of one of these pits led to a massive spill of coal ash sludge into the Clinch and Emory Rivers at TVA’s Kingston plant and brought national attention to the threat posed by this practice. The 1.1 billion gallons of coal ash sludge TVA accidentally released during the Kingston disaster was enough to fill 1,660 Olympic-size swimming pools—about 101 times the volume of oil spilled during the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, and about five times the volume of the BP oil spill.  Since then, utilities throughout the region are shifting their approach and relocating the ash in dry, lined storage away from waterways. This shift is partly in response to 2014 federal regulations of coal ash, which require all utilities to outline their coal ash storage plans.

TVA’s proposal to leave the ash in unlined pits comes at a time when the publicly-funded utility is under intense scrutiny as multiple lawsuits move forward to stop well-documented coal ash pollution from continuing to flow from its Gallatin Plant into the Cumberland River, which provides drinking water for 1.2 million residents downstream. Additionally, SELC, on behalf of the Sierra Club, has filed a notice of intent to sue TVA over the Cumberland Fossil Plant, where TVA’s own studies show that more than forty years of coal ash waste stored in unlined pits is illegally contaminating groundwater. 

As these legal challenges unfold, TVA is wrapping up a series of public meetings on its draft environmental impact statement for coal ash storage. March 9 is the public comment deadline and the last chance to provide input on this decision, which, if left as-is, could saddle Tennesseans with an unprecedented pollution legacy for decades to come­. To submit your own comments on the plan, click here.

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