Groups oppose TVA’s coal ash cover up plan as public comment period ends

TVA is proposing leaving tons of coal ash leaking into Tennessee waterways rather than moving it to lined storage, which is the safest storage approach and the one adopted by utilities in South Carolina, North Carolina and Georgia. (© Hollis Bennett)

Several groups issued a final appeal to the Tennessee Valley Authority to reverse course on a controversial plan to permanently cover up millions of tons of coal ash in leaking, unlined pits in or adjacent to rivers in Alabama, Tennessee, and Kentucky. TVA’s plans are in stark contrast to utilities in South Carolina, North Carolina, and Georgia that are moving coal ash away from waterways and into lined storage.

The public comment period for TVA’s proposed coal ash plan ended July 9, and TVA is expected to issue final approval for the plan as early as this week—despite the fact that the utility’s own monitoring data shows its sites are polluting groundwater with toxic metals from coal ash. The proposed cover up plan would leave the coal ash in place to continue polluting indefinitely. 

“While utilities around the country are recognizing coal ash as one of the biggest environmental and public health challenges today, TVA has blindly rushed forward a plan that would burden Tennesseans and Alabamians with this pollution for decades to come,” said Nashville Staff Attorney Amanda Garcia. “TVA promised to be a leader in coal ash safety following the Kingston disaster, yet walking away from these sites—as other utilities do the right thing and commit to clean up—breaks that promise.”

SELC partnered with several groups to submit comments on TVA’s final environmental impact statement for its coal ash management plan, which generally endorses “cap in place” as its preferred approach to coal ash disposal, which means leaving the ash in leaking pits. The plan outlines specific proposals for this at the utility's Kingston, Bull Run, John Sevier, and Allen plants in Tennessee, and its Colbert and Widows Creek plants in Alabama.

In the environmental impact statement, TVA admits:

  • Coal ash is buried in the groundwater beneath several ponds it is proposing to close in place, including ponds at Bull Run, Kingston, Colbert, and Widows Creek.
  • In ponds where ash is in buried in the groundwater, excavating the ash and moving it to dry, lined storage is “more beneficial” to protect groundwater. 
  • The agency has not characterized or quantified—let alone analyzed—the impacts of leaving coal ash in leaking, unlined pits at any of the sites addressed in the plan.

According to data and a map released last week by SELC, drinking water supplies for 3 million people in Tennessee and northern Alabama are downstream from or near leaking, unlined coal ash sites located on or in rivers that TVA proposes to cover up and let pollute rivers and groundwater indefinitely.

“TVA’s proposed plan to cover up its ash is not an acceptable solution for any of its sites, let alone for sites that have a history of violations such as Widows Creek and Colbert,” said Keith Johnston, managing attorney of SELC’s Birmingham office. “Families and communities in north Alabama deserve clean water and shouldn’t have to bear the burden of TVA’s continued pollution that threatens their drinking water.”

In Tennesseee, SELC has already taken legal action to stop coal ash pollution at TVA’s Gallatin Fossil Plant. On behalf of the Sierra Club, SELC also has filed a notice of intent to sue TVA for Clean Water Act violations at the Cumberland Fossil Plant, where TVA’s own studies show that over forty years of coal ash waste stored in unlined pits is illegally contaminating groundwater.

In Alabama, SELC filed a notice of intent to sue in February 2013 on behalf of our partners for surface and groundwater violations at the Colbert Fossil Plant in Tuscumbia. These violations have caused significant amounts of pollutants to be discharged illegally from the ash ponds into Cane Creek, a tributary of the Tennessee River, and groundwater.

In response to the notice letter, the Alabama Department for Environmental Management and TVA agreed to a consent decree regarding the violations under the Clean Water Act and the Alabama Water Pollution Control Act. SELC continues to push for safe storage of the ash at the Colbert Fossil Plant and the Widows Creek Fossil Plant in Stevenson, which holds one of the largest volumes of coal ash of the proposed sites to be closed and covered up under TVA’s plan. A major spill from an impoundment at the site occurred in 2009, just weeks after the Kingston disaster, causing waste to overflow into Widows Creek, a Tennessee River tributary.

SELC partnered with several groups in the region in submitting today's comments: Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, Environmental Integrity Project, Tennessee Clean Water Network, Alabama Rivers Alliance, Shoals Environmental Alliance, Earthjustice, Tennessee Chapter Sierra Club, Sierra Club Beyond Coal, and Tennessee Riverkeeper.

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