TVA Plans to Pollute Water Supplies Indefinitely with Leaking, Unlined Coal Ash Pits
Nashville, TN—Even while arsenic pollution in South Carolina rivers is dropping as coal ash is removed by utilities, the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) announced its plan to simply leave millions of tons of its coal ash in leaking, unlined pits to continue polluting indefinitely into groundwater and drinking water sources for communities across Alabama, Tennessee and Kentucky.
“Over the objection of people who live, play and drink water downstream, TVA is barreling forward with a plan to allow toxic coal ash contamination to continue to pollute the groundwater that feeds our rivers and streams in Tennessee, Alabama and Kentucky. In making this decision, TVA admits that removing the coal ash from unlined, leaking pits is the best way to reduce groundwater contamination risk and avoid decades of potential exposure to cancer-causing chemicals in our communities. TVA tries to make it sound like leaving coal ash in unlined, leaking pits is a reasonable decision, but in our region, South Carolina utilities are moving all of their coal ash from unlined waterfront pits, are doing so more cheaply than they first claimed, and are seeing groundwater contamination plummet as a result. Utilities in North Carolina, Georgia, and South Carolina are moving coal ash to dry lined storage or recycling it for concrete, protecting communities and drinking water supplies. Of all utilities, as federal utility and the one responsible for the Kingston spill, TVA should be the one making a decision that protects the public health and our water supplies,” said Amanda Garcia, staff attorney at SELC’s Nashville Office.
Environmental groups and residents had raised concerns about TVA’s draft plan, issued earlier, 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.
“Today’s decision by TVA to leave its unlined, leaking coal pits is unfortunate,” said Keith Johnston, managing attorney of SELC’s Birmingham Office. “Their decision to leave 10 coal ash impoundments in unlined, leaking pits next to our rivers means that they are guaranteeing pollution of our groundwater and waterways for decades to come. Essentially, it’s the status quo for TVA and the easiest and cheapest way out after decades of pollution. They leave the burden of their pollution on the public and our environment.”
TVA’s Ash Impoundment Closure Environmental Impact Statement generally endorses leave 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, TVA is moving forward at it own risk and the risk of its ratepayers, since it has yet to comply with an administrative order issued by the state’s environmental agency, TDEC, regarding TVA’s inadequate coal ash management. TDEC has stated that to protect the public health and environment, it may require TVA to excavate its toxic, leaking ash pits, even where TVA has already started capping them in place.
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 the Gallatin plant and has intervened in a lawsuit filed by the state of Tennessee against TVA over Gallatin pollution. On behalf of the Sierra Club, SELC also 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 north Alabama, SELC had previously 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. Subsequently, the Alabama Department of Environmental Management also filed a complaint concerning surface and groundwater contamination at the Colbert Fossil plant.
SELC partnered with several groups in the region in submitting earlier comments on TVA’s draft Environmental Impact Statement: 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 map showing TVA’s unlined, leaking coal ash storage sites near drinking water intakes across Tennessee is available here: https://www.southernenvironment.org/uploads/words_docs/TVAServiceArea_and_CoalPlants_and_DWintakes_2016_0630_final.pdf