TVA doubles down on coal ash cover up plan, despite growing public concern

TVA's Kingston plant, shown here in 2015, was the site of a massive coal ash spill that decimated the adjacent Emory River and nearby homes in 2008. (© Nancy Pierce/Flight by Southwings)

As other utilities in the region commit to clean up toxic coal ash sites in response to growing public health concerns, the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) has finalized a plan to simply leave millions of tons of its coal ash in place to continue polluting indefinitely into groundwater and drinking water sources for communities across Tennessee. TVA is accepting comments now through July 9 on its plan to leave its coal ash in leaking, unlined pits at ccr@tva.gov.

Environmental groups and residents raised concerns about TVA’s draft plan, issued earlier this year and finalized this week, to permanently cover up millions of tons of coal ash in leaking, unlined pits in or adjacent to rivers in Alabama, Tennessee, and Kentucky—despite the fact that TVA’s own monitoring data shows the sites are polluting groundwater with toxic metals from coal ash. In contrast, utilities in North Carolina and South Carolina are cleaning up sites by excavating coal ash lagoons to dry, lined storage away from waterways.

“We’re incredulous that TVA, the poster child for coal ash mismanagement thanks to the Kingston disaster, continues to push forward blindly with a plan that ensures ongoing pollution for decades to come,” said Amanda Garcia, Staff Attorney in SELC’s Nashville Office. “Coal ash has become one of the most pressing public health and environmental concerns today, and other utilities are responding accordingly—yet TVA continues to claim leadership while refusing to do the responsible thing.”

TVA’s Ash Impoundment Closure Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) generally endorses cap-in-place as its preferred approach to coal ash management and outlines specific plans to permanently leave coal ash in unlined pits by draining ponds at Kingston, Bull Run, John Sevier, and Allen in Tennessee, and Colbert and Widows Creek in Alabama, and putting a cover over them. Removing the ash to dry, lined storage away from rivers, lakes, and drinking water sources is a far safer, more effective alternative that TVA has rejected for all ten of the ash ponds specifically analyzed in the EIS. For Tennessee sites, the plan fails to take into account an administrative order issued by the state’s environmental agency, TDEC, regarding TVA’s inadequate coal ash management.

“Since TVA has continued to ignore the concerns of residents and is disregarding state and federal laws designed to keep waste and pollutants out of our waters, TDEC can and should step in and force TVA to take responsibility for its own ongoing coal ash pollution and clean up these leaking, unlined sites,” said Garcia.

SELC has already taken legal action to stop coal ash pollution at TVA power plants. On behalf of Tennessee Scenic Rivers Association and Tennessee Clean Water Network, SELC is suing TVA in federal court over coal ash pollution from its Gallatin plant and intervened in a lawsuit filed by the state of Tennessee against TVA over Gallatin pollution. On behalf of the Sierra Club, SELC also 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 TVA’s northern Alabama territory, SELC filed a notice of intent to sue on behalf of Tennessee Riverkeeper, Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, Shoals Environmental Alliance, and Waterkeeper Alliance 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.

“Make no mistake: with this plan, TVA has chosen a cover up instead of a clean-up, continuing a longstanding pattern of choosing to do less than the bare minimum in managing its coal ash pollution,” said Keith Johnston, Managing Attorney of SELC’s Birmingham Office. “If TVA is allowed to proceed, this decision will pose a risk to our drinking water sources and waterways for years to come.”

SELC partnered with several groups in the region in submitting comments on TVA’s draft EIS: Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, Environmental Integrity Project, Statewide Organizing for Community eMpowerment, Tennessee Clean Water Network, Alabama Rivers Alliance, Shoals Environmental Alliance, Tennessee Chapter Sierra Club, Sierra Club Beyond Coal, Earthjustice, and Tennessee Riverkeeper.


A number of TVA’s unlined, leaking coal ash storage sites are upstream of drinking water intakes across Tennessee.

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