Southeast River Runs Part 9: Coal Ash on the Tennessee River

Guest Blog | August 29, 2013 | Coal, Energy Policy

This is the ninth blog in a series featuring rivers of the Southeast endangered by toxic coal ash pollution. The rest of the series can be found here. Thanks to David Whiteside, Tennessee Riverkeeper, who contributed to this post.

Chattanooga's Riverfront is a popular tourist destination, featuring an aquarium, arts district, museums, and ferry rides on the beautiful Tennessee River.

Just east of Knoxville, Tennessee the Holston and French Broad Rivers come together to form the Tennessee River. The River’s flow is unconventional, cutting a U-shaped path 652 miles through Tennessee, across northern Alabama, then back through Tennessee to meet the Ohio River at Paducah, Kentucky.  At least four million Southerners get their drinking water from the Tennessee River and its tributaries, and 54 tons of goods are transported on the river annually. Visitors and locals come to the river to enjoy an array of recreational activities and water sports and several major fishing tournaments are held on the Tennessee river.

David Whiteside, Tennessee Riverkeeper, explains the importance of working together for cleaner water:

“Protecting the public’s water is so important, because water is one of the most essential components to all life.  The human body is comprised of over 60% water, and reducing pollution improves our drinking water quality, which ultimately benefits our neighbors and communities. I strongly feel that advocating for our blessed public water supply, our creeks and rivers, is one of the most efficient and effective ways to improve the lot of the masses.”

Electric power production from hydropower and coal-fired power plants is the cause of many dramatic changes to the Tennessee river; a series of dams that significantly alter the river’s shape and impede migrating species. Today, coal-fired power plants generate and dispose of massive amounts of coal ash, threatening water quality and the safety of communities along the river’s banks.

While most woodpeckers nest in dead trees, the Red Cockaded only nests in live, mature pine trees.

Much of the Tennessee River and tributaries within its 40,910 square mile watershed have been significantly altered by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) for navigation, flood damage reduction, power production, water quality and supply, and recreation. The same development that harnessed the Tennessee as a resource has decimated its native animal and plant populations, making the river home to the highest number of imperiled species of any river basin in North America. The basin is home to 57 at-risk fish species, 47 at-risk mussel species, and two endangered terrestrial species: the Gray/Indiana bat and Red-Cockaded woodpecker. The Tennessee River and its reservoirs is also home to one of the largest nesting populations of bald eagles in the lower 48 states.

“Riverkeeper is not fighting for our blessed Tennessee River and its tributaries for the sake of the bass or the catfish, but because we believe our lives will be richer in a world where we can have a safe, clean public water supply.  Riverkeeper fights for safer communities, where we have a safe, reliable water supply and where we can catch and eat the fish without the fear of harming our families and ourselves.” – David Whiteside, Tennessee Riverkeeper

Four TVA coal-fired power plants are located on the Tennessee River and its tributaries; the Johnsonville, Kingston, Widows Creek and Colbert Fossil Plants. At last official count the twenty five coal ash impoundments at these plants contained almost 13 billion gallons of coal ash along the banks of the Tennessee River and its tributaries. That’s enough waste to cover 31 thousand football fields one foot deep in toxic waste.

You probably recognize the Kingston Plant, which gained national attention in 2008 when a coal ash impoundment dam broke causing a 1.1 billion gallon coal ash spill to the Emory and Clinch Rivers, which flow into the Tennessee River. Other plants along the river may be lesser known, but they also pose serious threats to the Tennessee River Basin. For example, the aging Colbert Plant in northern Alabama has two coal ash impoundments covering 127 acres and dating back to the 1950’s.

Tennessee Riverkeeper, David Whiteside, testing a coal ash seep at TVA's Colbert plant.

Because the impoundments are unlined, there is no barrier preventing coal ash contaminants from polluting surrounding groundwater, which they’ve been doing for almost thirty years according to TVA’s own documentation. Despite TVA’s awareness of the contamination, it has continued to dispose and store the plant’s coal waste irresponsibly. In addition, Tennessee Riverkeeper has documented additional toxic discharges from the site flowing directly into Cane Creek. At one location near the Colbert plant, sampling has shown arsenic levels that were more than fifty times Alabama’s maximum contaminant level for arsenic. Tennessee Riverkeeper, who is working with SACE to make TVA clean up its pollution, says:

“Toxic metals from these seeps negatively affect the health of the river and may come in contact with many fishermen, boaters, skiers, and swimmers who use this area regularly, as well as those who depend on the river for their municipal drinking water supply.  Citizens depend on a clean and healthy Tennessee River for tap water, recreation, swimming, fishing, and other uses.  The river and its tributaries also help bring in millions of dollars in recreational and tourism income throughout the Valley.  Illegal pollution threatens both the economy and public health in the Tennessee Valley.”

Right now we all have an opportunity to put stronger protections from coal ash pollution in place. Until September 20, the EPA is taking public comments on new Coal Plant Water Pollution Standards – an important step forward in controlling coal ash pollution and cleaning up our water. Send your comments now and ask the EPA to stop coal ash pollution on the Tennessee, and all rivers nationwide.

Meanwhile, Congressional efforts are under way to undermine EPA’s authority to regulate coal ash and prevent the establishment of federal minimum safeguards. Send a message to your Representative today and ask that they oppose these efforts and let EPA do its job to regulate this toxic trash.

Tennessee Riverkeeper, Inc. is a non-profit organization working to protect the Tennessee River and its tributaries by enforcing environmental laws and educating the public. To learn more about the river, or get involved to help out, visit their webpage at 

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