Weak coal ash pollution permit at Kingston baffles many with still-fresh memories of coal ash spill

Trees stand in feet of wet coal ash after the dam of a coal ash storage area at TVA’s Kingston plant broke in 2008, spewing tons of toxins into nearby homes and yards, as well as the Clinch River. (© Jerry Greer)

Nine years ago, Tennessee Valley Authority’s Kingston Fossil Plant spilled more than a billion gallons of toxic coal ash sludge into the Clinch River and surrounding community when a retaining wall collapsed at one of the site’s leaking, unlined waste ponds. This catastrophic disaster threatened water supplies, endangered public health, destroyed property, and devastated wildlife.

To this day, Roane County and cleanup crew workers are still dealing with the aftermath of that deadly spill, while TVA continues to pollute the community’s clean water by discharging toxic pollutants into the Clinch and Emory Rivers.

Public weighs in

Erica Davis, a volunteer with Statewide Organizing for Community eMpowerment, asks for better protections from state officials during the public comment period at the Knoxville hearing.

It was with this disaster in mind that residents spoke last week at public hearings on a new state permit for the same Kingston power plant. Tennessee Department of Environmental and Conservation (TDEC) held the hearings in Knoxville and Roane County to discuss the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit for the plant, which authorizes the facility to discharge toxic pollutants into the rivers, like mercury, arsenic, and selenium, which have been linked to cancer, neurological disorders, and adolescent brain damage.

The proposed permit doesn’t place meaningful limits on toxic discharges until 2023, allowing these pollutants to continue to enter the Clinch and Emory Rivers unchecked for years, further degrading the waterways that serve as a local drinking water source as well as a recreational area for fishing and water sports.

“The draft permit would reward TVA’s longstanding tactic of delaying and evading compliance with laws that protect our clean water,” said SELC attorney Amanda Garcia, at the Knoxville hearing. “No one wants TVA to keep polluting the Clinch River with toxic pollutants for five more years, especially when we know they could clean up sooner.”

TVA is prohibited from polluting groundwater through its current permit. However, the coal plant has long been in violation of the permit because the leaking, unlined pits it uses to store coal ash are submerged in several feet of groundwater, polluting the water source. As proposed, the new draft permit would remove a provision that protects on-site groundwater supplies. Given ongoing pollution concerns about coal ash in the state, TDEC’s focus should be on enforcing these protections and making sure TVA cleans up the pollution, not eliminating rules that TVA has refused to follow.

SELC, along with several other environmental groups, submitted public comments to TDEC opposing the draft permit because it unreasonably delays TVA’s obligation to comply with long-overdue limits on the discharge of coal plant wastewater.

This is the first of several permit renewals due for TVA coal plants across the region.

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