Press Release | March 10, 2016

Concerns Raised about TVA’s Coal Ash “Cover Up” Plan

Nashville, TN—Yesterday Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) in partnership with 10 environmental groups raised concerns to Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) about its plans to cover up millions of tons of coal ash in leaking, unlined pits in or adjacent to rivers in Alabama, Tennessee and Kentucky, just upstream from drinking water intakes. Even though TVA’s own monitoring data shows that groundwater near its sites is being polluted with toxic metals from coal ash, its “cover up” plan leaves the coal ash in place to continue polluting indefinitely.  

In TVA’s draft Ash Impoundment Closure Environmental Impact Statement (“DEIS”), the agency proposes to cover up its coal ash in unlined pits  by simply draining water out of ponds at  Kingston, Bull Run, John Sevier, and Allen in Tennessee,  and Colbert and Widows Creek in Alabama and putting a cover over them.  TVA claims to be in a hurry to  cover its coal ash to comply with the new federal Coal Ash Rule, but nothing in the rule requires it to close its ponds so quickly—particularly when it will leave the public at risk of ongoing exposure to toxic chemicals.  Removing the ash to dry, lined storage is a safer alternative that was not adequately addressed in the DEIS.

TVA’s plan also fails to take into account an administrative order issued by the State of Tennessee.  The state environmental agency also submitted comments on the plan, reminding TVA that it may require the utility to do more to clean up its coal ash to comply with state law.

 In the comments submitted by SELC and its partners, the environmental groups contend that TVA did not consider basic information, such as location in proximity to groundwater or unstable ground, which is essential to determining the continuing risk of contamination and harm at each site. 

The DEIS overstates, without supporting analysis or documentation, the cost of moving the ash to safer dry lined storage and related impacts that may be associated with it. Furthermore, this public document relies on a secret analysis by an industry group. Citizens who have requested access to that information have been told they would be charged $25,000 for it.

“TVA has shown a pattern of choosing to do the bare minimum in managing its coal ash waste, and it now appears to be rushing in order to escape federal requirements to continue monitoring for contamination in the future,” said Keith Johnston, Managing Attorney at SELC’s Birmingham Office. “By opting to cover up its coal ash throughout the region, TVA is choosing the easy way out despite serious risks to public health and the environment.” 

“TVA’s proposal to just leave its coal ash in unlined pits would create an unprecedented pollution legacy for decades to come,” said Amanda Garcia, Staff Attorney at SELC’s Nashville Office. “While the Kingston coal ash disaster happened overnight and could not go unnoticed, this will be a slow imperceptible disaster, lasting for decades. We urge TVA to finally end decades of coal ash pollution by moving all the coal ash to dry, lined storage secured safely away from waterways and drinking water sources.” 

SELC filed its comments in partnership with the 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 


SELC has already taken action to stop coal ash pollution at a handful of 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 the Gallatin plant, where private drinking wells and the source of City of Gallatin’s drinking water nearby were found to contain coal ash contaminants in excess of EPA screening levels. These conservation groups have also intervened in a lawsuit filed by the state of Tennessee against TVA where the state stated under oath that TVA has been and continues to violate the Tennessee laws at the Gallatin power plant. 

In addition, SELC, on behalf of the Sierra Club, 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 TVA’s northern Alabama territory, SELC filed a notice of intent to sue in February 2013 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.

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, a retired plant that will soon serve as the site for Google’s newest data center.   

Are you a reporter and would like more information? Please visit our press contact page for a full list of SELC’s press contacts.

Press Contacts

Amanda Garcia

Senior Attorney