Environmental Groups Increasingly Concerned about Coal Ash Contamination in Tennessee

Guest Blog | March 13, 2014 | Press Releases

Dan River Spill in North Carolina Illustrates Dangers of Lax Coal Ash Regulation

Angela Garrone – Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (865) 637-6055, x23; [email protected]
Stephanie Matheny – Tennessee Clean Water Network (865) 522-7007, x102; [email protected]
Abel Russ – Environmental Integrity Project (202) 263-4453; [email protected]
Jared Saylor – Earthjustice (202) 745-5213; [email protected]

Nashville, TN – 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.

“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,” said Abel Russ, attorney at the Environmental Integrity Project. “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.”

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.

“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,” said Angela Garrone, Southeast Energy Research Attorney at the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. “In light of the recent court ruling against Duke Energy for similar groundwater contamination violations caused by coal ash, we hope TDEC is rethinking its approach to regulation of TVA’s coal ash impoundments.”

In addition to TVA’s apparent backsliding, TDEC has done little to address existing leaking coal ash impoundments that are contaminating groundwater at each of TVA’s 11 coal plants. According to a recent report from the Environmental Integrity Project, polluted groundwater at TVA coal plant sites is also draining into nearby rivers and streams, posing a long-term environmental threat. Although evidence of contamination is substantial, TVA stopped monitoring at some sites after initial testing results indicated high levels of arsenic, boron, manganese and other toxic metals.

“More than five years after the Kingston disaster, TDEC is sitting idly by waiting for EPA to tell it what to do about TVA’s coal ash impoundments,” said Tennessee Clean Water Network attorney Stephanie Matheny. “There is no reason to think that what happened at Kingston or at Duke Energy’s Dan River plant won’t happen again in Tennessee. We need to get coal ash out of TVA’s leaking, unlined ponds and out of the flood plains of Tennessee’s rivers.”

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 also 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. If the situation at John Sevier is any indication, however, it doesn’t seem likely that TVA will close ponds in a safe, protective manner without being pushed to do so by TDEC.

“TVA should have learned a lesson in 2008 that wet coal ash storage is a disaster waiting to happen,” said Mary Whittle, staff attorney at Earthjustice. “Clean water is a precious resource that needs protecting, and TVA’s actions have shown that keeping waters clean simply isn’t their priority.”