Will TVA Sweep Coal Ash Under the Rug?

Guest Blog | February 9, 2016 | Coal, Energy Policy
Advocates gather outside TVA's public meeting in Oak Ridge, TN to push TVA to safely store coal ash waste at its Bull Run plant

The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) is finishing up hosting a series of public meetings across its service territory to hear concerns from residents about its plan to “close” some of its toxic coal ash pits.

Last Wednesday and Thursday (Feb 3-4), dozens of community members living near TVA’s Bull Run and Kingston coal plants outside of Knoxville attended TVA’s hearings on coal ash at those facilities. Representatives from the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy attended to learn more about TVA’s plans and share our concerns about leaving toxic materials next to our waterways. If you live in TVA’s service area, you can have an impact right now by signing the petition urging TVA to clean up contamination and store its coal ash properly.

Seven years ago, over one billion gallons of coal ash slurry erupted from one of TVA’s old, unlined ponds at the Kingston plant when the earthen berm holding it back gave way. The resulting disaster for the community and the Emory River made national headlines and eventually spurred the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to introduce standards for coal ash handling and storage in a 2015 federal coal ash rule. Over seven years after the disaster, in response to EPA’s rule, TVA released a draft proposal for how to close its coal ash pits in Tennessee, Kentucky, and Alabama.

TVA’s current “closure” plan for some of its coal ash is downright dangerous.

There’s plenty of reason for concern with TVA’s current plans for its coal ash pits, which comprise more than 538 acres of land and contain nearly 33 million cubic yards of ash, stored as a wet sludge. The pits (also known as impoundments or ponds) are often unlined, and many persistently leach into our rivers and groundwater, posing contamination risks to drinking water. The plan favors leaving this ash in place without liners underneath.

SACE Energy Research Attorney Angela Garrone (pictured left) and advocates talk to TVA staff about concerns over plans to permanently store coal ash waste at its Kingston plant in unlined impoundments.

TVA decided it needed to close ash pits by April 2018, to take advantage of the fast-track, less-protective closure option under the new federal coal ash rule. This is not a legal requirement, but merely a cost-saving choice by TVA that will result in continuous pollution of our waterways. In fact, TVA seems to be using this timeline to avoid even fully analyzing the option of excavating its coal ash and removing it to dry, lined storage (closure-by-removal). Other leading utilities in the Southeast are doing the right thing by removing coal ash at their power plants away from rivers and waterways, so we know that TVA can do better.

TVA is basing the majority of its analysis on a study by the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) that has not been made available to the public for review and which appears not even to be finalized. TVA also failed to make an honest assessment of the extent to which groundwater is already contaminated at its coal ash pits. It’s critically important for TVA to determine how much coal ash is currently being stored below the water table. Instead, TVA is proposing to cover its ash with clay or synthetic liners and leave it in place, presumably forever, without properly analyzing groundwater contamination.

TVA is practically guaranteeing that prolonged and continuous contamination will occur on every waterway that has one of these coal ash impoundments near it. All this in an attempt to avoid compliance with federal requirements for new coal ash landfills that establish safer practices for the long-term storage of this dangerous waste. That’s why SACE, Sierra Club, Southern Environmental Law Center, Statewide Organizing for Community eMpowerment, and the Alliance for Appalachia are working to ensure that TVA is listening to concerns from community members across the state who want coal ash cleaned up and properly stored once and for all.

Community members at the Kingston hearing

Concerns at Kingston

The discussion of the Tennessee Department of Environment & Conservation’s (TDEC) groundwater standards in TVA’s proposed plan is clearly intended to support the idea that there are “no issues of concern” at Kingston related to groundwater quality. This characterization is deeply misleading.  Available evidence unambiguously demonstrates that the coal ash disposal areas at Kingston have contaminated local groundwater, and will continue to do so unless the ash is removed.  If the ash is not removed, the local groundwater will most likely be unsafe to drink for the foreseeable future.

All three downgradient monitoring wells at Kingston show contamination of coal ash indicator pollutants (boron, sulfate) that are much higher than background levels and levels of manganese and cobalt are well above safe drinking water guidelines.

Concerns at Bull Run

TVA confirms groundwater near the Bull Run plant currently has arsenic and barium levels above TDEC’s Ground Water Protection Standards (GWPS). TVA states that boron and sulfate levels do not violate GWPS, but that’s misleading given that Tennessee state law doesn’t actually have standards for those two coal ash indicator pollutants. Boron and sulfate levels do exceed background levels, however, indicating there is groundwater contamination.

What’s next?

Communities across TVA’s territory need to demand that TVA properly cleans up and stores its coal ash. It is impossible for the public to meaningfully engage in this process when TVA is not sharing the EPRI analysis that provides a basis for its plan. You can take action now by signing the petition urging TVA to properly clean up and store its coal ash. The health and safety of communities and waterways across the Tennessee Valley is at stake.

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