News | June 17, 2019

TVA faces scrutiny for polluting plans, leaky coal ash pits

Concerned citizens and environmental groups in the Memphis area are calling for a chance to weigh in on a major utility’s plans to discharge up to 15 million gallons of polluted coal ash water per day into their beloved Mississippi River.

Testing shows the Tennessee Valley Authority’s leaking, unlined coal ash pit at its Allen Fossil Plant has highly contaminated the surrounding groundwater with arsenic and other pollutants. Water samples from within its East Ash Pond contain arsenic at 1,000 times the safe drinking water level.

Now, the authority is planning to dump that water into the Mississippi River by way of a small, open-air channel and an authorization from the Tennessee Department of Environment & Conservation, which the agency granted without requiring an update to TVA’s permit or circulating the plans for public comment.

Though dewatering the East Ash Pond is an essential step to remove the arsenic that is threatening the underground Memphis Sand Aquifer, which serves as the city’s water source, SELC Managing Attorney Amanda Garcia says, “We don’t think dumping that pollution into the Mississippi River is a solution.”

“It’s astounding that TVA thinks it’s ok to dump water with that level of toxicity into the river without treating it first,” Garcia adds. And it’s “mind boggling,” she says, that TVA and TDEC would allow these extremely high levels of arsenic and other coal ash pollution to enter the Mississippi without consulting the public—especially after what happened when TVA failed to solicit public input before drilling wells into the Memphis Sand Aquifer.

The Memphis Sand Aquifer is a unique geological formation that has trapped massive amounts of fresh, particularly pure water underground, totaling as much as 100 trillion gallons that stretch under seven states. Memphis is one of the largest cities that relies on underground water as its primary source for drinking.

Memphians deserve clean water, and the only way we can ensure that happens is to ensure that the public is informed and involved.

Amanda Garcia, SELC Managing Attorney

Just last year, a study by the U.S. Geological Survey and the University of Memphis Center for Applied Earth Science and Engineering Research (CAESER) found that running the wells at the gas plant caused water to be pulled into the aquifer from the nearby coal ash-polluted groundwater, putting the county’s water source at risk. At the time, TVA didn’t take the advice of locals who feared that pulling water up from underground would act in the same way a straw does in a glass of water, sucking pollution down from the unlined coal ash pits and into their drinking water.

“Memphians deserve clean water, and the only way we can ensure that happens is to ensure that the public is informed and involved,” says Garcia.

SELC is now stepping in to request that TDEC subject TVA’s dewatering plan to public comment, and to ask that the state agency require TVA to submit a new permit request to dewater the pond in large part because its previous permit, which does not authorize the discharge of this highly toxic pollution stream, expired about a decade ago.

The utility is also under scrutiny after the discovery of a 1,500-foot wide hole in the clay layer at the Allen plant that was believed to be separating coal ash-contaminated groundwater from the Memphis Sand Aquifer.

Hole the length of five football fields

When TVA recently submitted a draft report to the state that identified the massive hole, it was the authority’s first public confirmation that there is a breach in the underground clay layer. Prior to that, the utility had made repeated claims that the presence of the clay layer was keeping the city’s drinking water safe.

The report shares the results of water samples taken at various depths. Most alarming are the high levels of boron – an indicator of coal ash pollution – deep within the contaminated ground water and near the hole in the clay layer. Though the U.S. Geological Survey and the University of Memphis CAESER released the report that found the contamination was connected to the town’s drinking supply last year, how close and how wide the breach is did not come to light until the recent TVA report was submitted to the state.

Since these findings have revealed the connection to the city’s drinking water source, and the hole in the clay layer that’s the length of five football fields, Shelby County officials have put strict restrictions on TVA’s use of the wells at the natural gas plant. SELC plans to follow the next steps in the investigation closely.