Press Release | February 3, 2017

Gallatin Coal Ash Trial Concludes

Judge Asks For Closing Arguments, Findings of Fact in Writing; Ruling Not Expected For Several Months.

Nashville TN. — A federal Clean Water Act lawsuit brought by conservation groups against the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) concluded Thursday after four days of testimony. 

It marks the first time in state history a Clean Water Act lawsuit over coal ash storage has reached trial. The lawsuit focused on TVA’s Gallatin Fossil Plant and its leaking coal ash pits that have polluted the Cumberland River for decades. The Southern Environmental Law Center represented the Tennessee Scenic Rivers Association, who was a co-plaintiff with the Tennessee Clean Water Network.

During the four days of testimony, SELC attorneys and witnesses revealed a decades-long history of pollution from the state’s largest utility, and contended to the court that pollution is ongoing.

  • A TVA witness admitted that, during the 1970s, about 27 billion gallons of water mixed with coal ash was pumped into pits with porous bottoms. That ash-water mix drained through sinkholes and into the environment. One expert testified the coal ash pit was more like a colander than a container.
  • TVA witnesses conceded that on several occasions, the containment systems for the coal ash ponds leaked, putting coal ash into the Cumberland River. TVA provided no testimony that it cleaned up any of that coal ash.
  • SELC witnesses testified they recently found coal ash deposits on the banks of the Cumberland River. One expert testified the black sludge he encountered was waist deep.
  • Dr. Avner Vengosh, a professor of geochemistry and water quality at Duke University who has been studying coal ash for 10 years, testified that based on results of water testing, this was one of the most clear-cut cases of coal ash pollution he has seen. 
  • Mr. Albert Hudson, a former TVA pipefitter who lives near the Gallatin site, testified that authorities concluded his well water is polluted, and he now buys bottled water.
  • Dr Vengosh tested Mr. Hudson’s well water and found chemical indicators consistent with coal ash.  Mr. Hudson also received a letter in 2015 from the state that his well contained elevated levels of hexavalent chromium.
  • A Tennessee Department of Health and Environment geologist testified that he was present at a meeting where employees of TVA and its contractor revealed ground water sampling showed high levels of arsenic at wells all over the site.
  • That employee also testified that data presented at the meeting showed that a portion of the coal ash was buried in the groundwater. That contradicted earlier testimony from TVA witnesses, who said ash was not in contact with the groundwater.

Several experts testified to U.S. District Judge Waverly Crenshaw that much of the Gallatin Fossil Plant sits on “karst” topography. That is a type of porous limestone bedrock known for caverns, caves, sinkholes and underground streams. SELC produced to the court at least a dozen TVA reports written over decades showing TVA workers and contractors faced ongoing challenges with plugging sinkholes.

Documents gathered before trial by SELC showed TVA had in the past performed a test where dye was placed into the coal ash ponds to see if it traveled through sinkholes and into the Cumberland River. TVA said in a written response to SELC it could not locate the results of that test.

An attorney representing the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, also suing TVA, told the judge the state is preparing a dye test in the spring. She said the results will be shared with SELC.

A Clean Water Act lawsuit requires that the migration of pollution from a source to a water body like a river must be ongoing. SELC experts contended in court that, among other things, the porous nature of the bedrock, the historical leaks, the continuing contaminated groundwater, and TVA’s inability over decades to completely seal the bottom of the ash pond, is evidence that coal ash is still draining from the unlined pits and into the groundwater, where toxins like arsenic then flow with the groundwater to the river.

TVA, in conceding that coal ash has repeatedly escaped the ponds and ended up in the river, said there is no proof when those events happened.  TVA attorneys also said the utility should not be held responsible for earlier discharges and leaks.

SELC, the Tennessee Scenic Rivers Association and the Tennessee Clean Water Network are pressing for excavation of the toxic ash at Gallatin, and to have it transported to modern, lined landfills away from water. TVA is considering putting a liner over the waste pits and leaving the ash in place.

Several mid-Atlantic utilities like Duke Energy and Santee Cooper are excavating coal ash pits and moving the waste to modern landfills.

The case was argued by SELC attorneys Beth Alexander, Anne Davis, Anne Passino and Jonathan Gendzier. They were supported by a team of attorneys and legal assistants.

The Southern Environmental Law Center is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. With nine offices across the region (Charlottesville, VA; Chapel Hill, NC; Atlanta, GA; Charleston, SC; Washington, DC; Birmingham, AL; Nashville, TN; Asheville, NC; and Richmond, VA), SELC is widely recognized as the Southeast’s foremost environmental organization and a regional leader. SELC works on a full range of environmental issues to protect the South’s natural resources and the health and well-being of all the people in our region.

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