What’s Wrong With This Picture? TVA’s So-Called Coal Ash “Solution”

This blog was written by Amelia Shenstone, former Regional Advocacy Director with the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.

Guest Blog | April 13, 2017 | Coal, Energy Policy

The Tennessee Valley Authority is planning to “clean up” 13.4 million tons of coal ash by capping it in place.

Our new animation shows why cap in place is not a solution for unlined ash pits: it doesn’t keep ash separated from groundwater. Click the image on the left to watch the 30-second clip, and then please share it!

Tennesseeans will come together across the state during Earth Week for screenings of Coal Ash Stories, a series of short films documenting how coal ash impacts real people. The screenings are sponsored by SOCM with local Sierra Club and student groups. For a screening near you, visit our event page.

Later this year, the public will have the opportunity to comment on what the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC) is making TVA assess at its ash pits. While TDEC’s assessment process inches along, TVA is moving ahead with federal environmental assessments that set it on the path to cap unlined ash pits in place, even though TDEC may later require more thorough cleanup.

TVA’s ash storage plans were one of our top coal ash stories to watch in 2017.  TVA is planning to close coal ash pits at four power plant sites in Tennessee by as early as 2017. The new “Say No to Cap in Place” animation, coupled with the film tour, will equip local folks with the tools to hold TVA and TDEC accountable. TDEC must not allow TVA to get away with inadequate closure.

In August 2015, the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC) released a Commissioner’s Order requiring TVA to investigate its coal ash storage pits, and identify and clean up any coal ash contamination problems it discovers. If TDEC holds TVA’s feet to the fire, this order could result in improved plans that clean up coal ash by excavating it to lined landfills away from Tennessee’s waterways.

Advocates gather outside TVA’s public meeting in Oak Ridge, TN to push TVA to store coal ash waste from its Bull Run plant safely.

Rather than taking the common sense approach of removing toxic ash to lined landfills, TVA currently plans to leave its coal ash buried in groundwater at many of its sites, creating a continual contamination risk for Tennessee’s groundwater and surface water. Tennesseans swim, fish, boat, and play in these rivers and streams, and drinking water supplies are drawn from some of the groundwater and surface water that is currently at risk.

Of all the utilities in the Southeast, TVA should be taking the lead on proper coal ash closure, given the dramatic consequences of its spill at the Kingston Fossil Plant in 2008. However, TVA has not committed to excavating its ash at even a single site. South Carolina’s three utilities are excavating all 20 million tons of ash from unlined, waterfront pits to lined landfills and proving that excavation can be done relatively quickly while creating huge positive results for the environment. Since excavation began at one site, arsenic contamination has decreased by over 90 percent. If South Carolina utilities can remove their ash, surely TVA can too.

Recent flooding due to Hurricane Matthew in North Carolina at one of Duke Energy’s power plant sites shows the threat of coal ash spills posed by increasing extreme weather events in our region. Still, TVA hasn’t provided enough details to the public about the risks involved in their current closure plans or how they will prevent similar disasters from unfolding on Tennessee’s rivers.

TVA could begin implementing its plans, only to have TDEC later require TVA to remove ash from pits TVA has already expended resources to “close,” adding unnecessary inefficiency and costs to the process. We and our allies have been engaging with TVA and TDEC for months on various comment processes related to TVA’s closure plans, and the problems with these plans should be well-known to the agency. Now is the time for TDEC to step in and protect Tennessee’s clean drinking water and ratepayers, and we hope they will.

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