Remembering TN’s Coal Ash Problems After NC’s Dan River Disaster

Guest Blog | April 1, 2014 | Coal, Energy Policy
TVA coal ash spill with Kingston Coal Plant in background

In the wake of the recent coal ash disaster at Duke Energy’s Dan River plant in Eden, NC, environmental groups have become increasingly concerned with the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation’s (TDEC) handling of toxic coal ash within the state. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Tennessee’s coal ash impoundments can hold up to 16.8 billion gallons of coal ash and the Tennessee Valley Authority’s (TVA) coal plants generate 3.2 million tons of coal ash annually – ranking Tennessee as the 13th highest coal ash producing state in the nation. Despite TVA’s own 2008 Kingston coal ash disaster, which dumped over 1 billion gallons of ash sludge into the Clinch and Emory Rivers and across 300 acres of neighboring property, TDEC and TVA have failed to adequately address continual problems with coal ash impoundments within Tennessee.

After the Kingston disaster, former TVA CEO Tom Kilgore promised to convert all of TVA’s dangerous wet ash impoundments, which are prone to spills and leakage into water supplies, to safer dry ash, lined landfills. Although TVA made some progress with conversions at its Bull Run and Kingston plants, according to a recent TDEC filing with the Tennessee General Assembly, TVA is almost a decade away from completing all of its conversions. TVA recently proposed building a dry ash landfill at its Gallatin plant, but even that proposal does not include adequate monitoring to ensure that ash stored in the dry landfill does not cause further contamination of surrounding water resources.

Health Impacts of Coal Ash Constituents (taken from Earthjustice Infographic)

In addition to TVA’s apparent backsliding on dry ash conversions, TDEC has done little to address existing leaking coal ash impoundments that are contaminating groundwater at each of TVA’s 11 coal plants.  In November 2013, the Environmental Integrity Project (EIP) released a report entitled “TVA’s Toxic Legacy: Groundwater Contaminated by TVA Coal Ash” confirming groundwater contamination at each of TVA’s 11 coal plants. Polluted groundwater at TVA coal plant sites is also draining into nearby rivers and streams, posing a long-term environmental threat.   Abel Russ, attorney at EIP and author of the report, found substantial evidence of contamination and discovered a pattern of TVA discontinuing monitoring at some sites after initial testing results indicated high levels of arsenic, boron, manganese and other toxic coal ash constituents.

Mr. Russ emphasizes that TVA is in transition, as it retires more coal plants, making this a critical time for dealing with the toxic legacy of burning coal in Tennessee.  TDEC has an obligation to ensure that old TVA ash impoundments are closed in a way that protects human health and the environment. TVA, meanwhile, has a responsibility to close these dangerous coal ash impoundments on schedule and TVA ought to be proactive in addressing its coal ash contamination problems. Hiding behind outdated regulations is no excuse for continuously endangering the water resources and people of the Tennessee Valley.  In light of the recent court ruling against Duke Energy for similar groundwater contamination violations caused by coal ash, local environmentalists hope TDEC is rethinking its approach to regulation of TVA’s coal ash impoundments.

TVA's Bull Run Plant

During an October 2013 TDEC Board of Water Quality, Oil and Gas hearing on a challenge of a Clean Water Act permit for TVA’s Bull Run plant, TVA staff indicated that it might no longer be fully committed to converting all of its wet ash storage facilities to dry ash storage facilities. At the hearing, Sam Hixson, TVA’s corporate representative and regulatory manager for waste, testified that the conversions were not required by regulation and that TVA will wait until the finalization of pending EPA regulation before it moves forward with additional conversions. Mr. Hixson’s testimony can be found on page 84 of the transcript of that hearing, found here.

Tennessee Clean Water Network attorney Stephanie Matheny and Earthjustice attorney Mary Whittle represent plaintiffs TCWN and SACE in the Bull Run permit appeal.  More than five years after the Kingston disaster, Ms. Matheny is disappointed to see TDEC sitting idly by waiting for EPA to tell it what to do about TVA’s coal ash impoundments. She sees no reason to think that what happened at Kingston or at Duke Energy’s Dan River plant won’t happen again in Tennessee.  Ms. Whittle thinks TVA should have already learned the lesson that wet coal ash storage is a disaster waiting to happen.  Clean water is a precious resource that needs protecting, and TVA’s actions have shown that keeping waters clean simply isn’t their priority.

In the past, when environmental groups confronted TDEC about known arsenic contamination caused by an abandoned impoundment at TVA’s Allen plant in Memphis, TN, TDEC acknowledged the contamination but took no efforts to remediate or conduct further monitoring of the site to assess the severity of on-site contamination. Unlined, unmonitored legacy coal ash sites, like those at TVA’s John Sevier facility, can pose long-term risks to surrounding water bodies when not properly sealed and monitored. It remains unclear how TVA will handle closure of its existing ash impoundments at plants that will be retiring in the near future. For now, however, it doesn’t seem likely that TVA will close ponds in a safe, protective manner without being pushed to do so by TDEC.

Sadly, the Dan River disaster in NC is an unfortunate reminder that the way we store burned coal waste in the Southeast is far from safe for people or the environment. Here in TN we had the Kingston disaster serve as a wake-up-call, but we’ve not done enough to adequately address the problems these impoundments pose. It’s high time that the leadership at TVA and our officials at TDEC follow through with their charges to serve and protect the people of the valley. Learn more and take action about coal ash near you at

Guest Blog
My Profile