Gallatin, Tenn. coal ash leaks are a hidden environmental disaster

The porous geology beneath TVA’s Gallatin plant makes the site’s coal ash pits susceptible to leaking.  (© Nancy Pierce/Flight by Southwings)

Eight years ago today, a breach at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Kingston Fossil Plant discharged more than a billion gallons of toxic coal ash into the Clinch River, destroying homes, contaminating the confluence of the Emory, Clinch, and Tennessee rivers, and covering hundreds of acres of land with coal ash sludge.

It was the worst coal ash disaster in U.S. history, a calamity that focused national attention on the dangers of storing toxic waste in unstable riverside pits.

At Gallatin, that same leaky storage method has also contaminated the groundwater and the Cumberland River. But instead of a news-making gush, Gallatin’s toxic legacy has unfolded through decades of unseen, underwater releases that, according to TVA’s own documents, discharged a stunning volume of pollution into drinking-water sources.

“The Kingston disaster is on people’s minds this time of year, and rightly so,” said Beth Alexander, Senior Attorney with SELC’s Nashville office. “The Kingston failure happened in an instant. But the Gallatin failure has unfolded over years, out of site. With BP, there was an underwater camera and we all saw the tragic oil spill as it happened.. At Gallatin, there’s no camera to record it, but the contamination is happening every day.”

Experts and attorneys preparing for a federal trial against TVA used the utility’s own accounting to estimate more than 27 billion gallons of coal ash has leaked from Gallatin’s ash ponds in the past 60 years.

The Gallatin ash pollutes groundwater from numerous sinkholes and porous limestone that siphon ash through the bottoms of the unlined pits. The ash and its toxins flow with the groundwater into the Cumberland River.

Despite the record-breaking spill at its Kingston plant and the massive leaks at its Gallatin plant, TVA plans to leave all the coal ash it has created for decades in unlined pits across its territory.

This primitive storage method and Tennessee’s porous geology are behind the toxic leaks at seven TVA sites. But it is the leaks at Gallatin that will be the subject of the state’s first federal Clean Water Act trial focusing on how TVA stores coal ash.

Next month, SELC attorneys, representing the Tennessee Clean Water Network and the Tennessee Scenic Rivers Association, are scheduled for trial in a lawsuit against TVA to stop the toxic leaks at the Gallatin plant.

“The bottom of the ash pond is not like a liner, it is more like a colander,” wrote Dr. Chris Groves of Western Kentucky University in a report filed in federal court.

Coal ash contains heavy metals and toxins, like arsenic.

Unlike several other utilities in the Southeast, TVA is pressing ahead with plans to cover these ash pits with a liner and dirt, a process the industry calls “capping in place.” Covering the ash pits in place is the cheapest way to handle them, but does nothing to stop the groundwater pollution. Groundwater will still saturate the ash and carry toxins into the Cumberland River.

Several utilities in the Carolinas and in Georgia are excavating, or have committed to excavate, their coal ash pits. Utilities are safely sending the ash to modern, dry, lined landfills, or are recycling the ash into concrete. To date, those utilities have removed or pledged to remove 75 million tons of toxic ash.

The trial in Nashville federal court is scheduled to begin Jan. 30.

Also this week, SELC and six other organizations sent a letter calling on TDEC to compel the TVA to comply with the Federal Coal Ash Rule.

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