Gallatin coal ash trial concludes as SELC reveals decades-long trouble at TVA site

A federal trial exposed internal records from the Tennessee Valley Authority that showed decades of coal ash leaks and spills from the Gallatin Fossil Plant. A judge is not expected to rule on SELC’s Clean Water Act lawsuit until later in the year.

In a four-day federal trial, SELC attorneys made public dozens of internal documents from the Tennessee Valley Authority showing a decades-long history of coal ash discharges into the Cumberland River.

Judge Waverly Crenshaw set an April deadline for follow-up briefs, and did not issue a ruling. That will likely come months later.

Until the Clean Water Act trial that concluded Thursday, there was no public record revealing the volume of leaks, spills, and seeps that have continuously contaminated groundwater and tainted the river since at least the 1970s. The TVA documents revealed ongoing efforts to plug chronic sinkholes and seeps that have plagued the coal ash impoundment. The entire facility sits on what geologists said was “karst” topography, porous limestone known for sinkholes, caverns, and underground streams.

The documents also countered TVA’s assertions that leaks were quickly sealed and that the coal ash compound is not leaking.

“This case peeled back the TVA facade and showed its customers, state lawmakers and regulators, and all of Tennessee, just how poorly the utility has treated the Cumberland River, an important waterway that provides Nashville’s drinking water,” said Anne Davis, managing attorney of SELC’s Nashville office.

SELC attorneys forced a public admission from TVA officials that, for a period of time in the 1970s, water mixed with coal ash leaked through the porous bottom of the ash ponds at a rate of 6,000 gallons a minute. The total volume of coal ash wastewater lost during that time, TVA admitted, was 27 billion gallons.

TVA also admitted to a series of subsequent breaches in its containment systems that spilled coal ash into the river. One such breach created a “delta” of coal ash in the waterway. SELC experts testified that on a recent visit, they encountered coal ash sludge on the banks of the Cumberland River that was at times waist deep.

No one from TVA testified the agency made any efforts to remove the spilled coal ash from the river. TVA attorneys asserted that because it was difficult to prove when that happened, the agency can’t be held accountable.

“No matter the outcome of this case, we succeeded in revealing TVA’s historical and ongoing environmental failures, things the utility did not want made public,” said Beth Alexander, the lead attorney for SELC. “Until our case, there was no meaningful state scrutiny on the Gallatin Fossil Plant. There was no environmental investigation. But now that is all underway.”

After SELC launched its lawsuit, state environmental officials then began investigating, which has led to a separate lawsuit.

In the state case, officials told federal Judge Crenshaw they planned to inject dye into the Gallatin coal ash pits to determine conclusively whether the pits are leaking into groundwater and into the Cumberland. TVA once performed a similar test, but when SELC requested the results for trial, TVA representatives said they could not locate those documents.

The trial focused on the Gallatin Fossil Plant, but the same conditions that led to the pollution there are present at every coal ash impoundment in Tennessee, and in the Southeast. The trial is part of SELC’s ongoing commitment to communities dealing with coal ash impoundments and the danger they present to drinking water, to their neighborhoods, and to the environment. 

SELC represented the Tennessee Scenic Rivers Association, who was a co-plaintiff with the Tennessee Clean Water Network.

Davis said the work of several SELC attorneys was instrumental in bringing to light TVA’s environmental record. She noted the work of Alexander, along with SELC attorneys Jonathan Gendzier and Anne Passino. They were supported with the legal and logistical assistance of Jenna Monk, Maureen Gleason, Bridgit Clark, Catherine Anderson, Alexis Durand, and Roshan Patel.

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