Tennessee attorney general steps up in coal ash case

Tennessee’s attorney general is demanding that the TVA hand over information about water pollution at one of its coal plants.

A Tennessee Valley Authority power plant in Kentucky. Environmentalists are taking the TVA to court over another plant in Tennessee, and the state is getting involved. CREDIT: AP Photo/Dylan Lovan, File
A Tennessee Valley Authority power plant in Kentucky. Environmentalists are taking the TVA to court over another plant in Tennessee, and the state is getting involved. CREDIT: AP Photo/Dylan Lovan, File

In a win for Tennessee environmental groups, the state’s Attorney General demanded this week that the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) release information about water pollution coming from one of its coal-burning power plants.

According to a letter sent to the TVA on Wednesday by Assistant Attorney General Emily Vann, the utility is currently in violation of state law by withholding water quality data, the Tennessean reported. The TVA contacted the state about high levels of pollution coming from their Gallatin plant on December 16, but has refused to supply more information during follow-up inquiries from the state. The TVA is a federally owned public utility, and is the largest public power company in the United States. It supplies energy to around 80,000 square miles of the southeastern United States, including most of Tennessee.

The Gallatin plant, located along the Cumberland River near Gallatin, Tennessee, has been a target for environmentalists for years. It’s one of the oldest TVA coal plants still in operation, and one of the largest producers of coal ash in the country, according to the Sierra Club. Coal ash — the waste product created from burning coal — contains toxic elements such as mercury, arsenic, and selenium. It is often disposed of by mixing it with water and storing it in unlined pits near coal plants. Sometimes, those toxic elements can leach into groundwater — and sometimes, the pits themselves breach, spilling into rivers and water sources, as was the case with the TVA’s 2008 Kingston coal ash spill, which sent 5.4 million cubic yards of coal ash into the Emory and Clinch rivers.

At Gallatin, coal ash is currently stored in wet storage ponds. As part of a $1 billion retrofit of the plant, the TVA has plans to construct a new 54-acre landfill, which would serve as dry storage for new coal ash and take in between 1,100 and 2,400 tons of material a day, according to the Tennessean. But it plans to leave the coal ash stored in wet ponds in place, simply draining those ponds and capping them. And environmental groups argue that those ponds already have a legacy of polluting groundwater, with independent tests taken from at least two water wells near the plant showing elevated levels of heavy metals.

The Gallatin plant is no stranger to legal challenges: In 2013, the Sierra Club — along with local environmental groups — filed a lawsuit against TVA plans to retrofit the Gallatin plant with pollution controls, arguing that the TVA didn’t properly consider other scenarios, including retiring the plant altogether, in its decision. A year later, the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) filed a lawsuit on behalf of the Tennessee Clean Water Network and Tennessee Scenic Rivers Association, arguing that the plant was violating the Clean Water Act by discharging pollutants into the Cumberland River. That case is scheduled to go to trial on January 30 in federal court. Then, in 2015, the state of Tennessee filed separate charges against the TVA over the Gallatin plant’s water pollution. That case is scheduled to go to trial on October 30.

Beth Alexander, senior attorney in the SELC’s Nashville office, called the TVA’s recent refusal to turn over water pollution data a “blatant act of deception” and “just one example in a long line of egregious abuses of power and lack of transparency.”

TVA spokesman Scott Brooks told the Tennessean that while the plant had indeed notified the state about high levels of contamination, it did not want to provide “unvalidated raw data.” The data was from on-site monitoring wells and not from direct sources of drinking water, he said.

But the SELC argues that on-site pollution doesn’t necessarily stay on-site, and that the plant has been leeching pollutants into the Cumberland River, which acts as Nashville’s primary source of drinking water. The SELC claims that the plant has leaked more than 27 billion gallons of coal ash into groundwater and waterways in the last 60 years — but notes that the total could be even higher than that, depending on what the TVA’s undisclosed data reveals.

“The Gallatin plant has been contaminating our water supplies for more than half a century, it’s time we put a stop to TVA’s coal ash pollution,” Anne Davis, managing attorney of SELC’s Nashville office, said in a statement.

In August, the TVA announced that while it plans to close 10 coal ash ponds across Tennessee and Alabama, the utility has no plans for cleaning up toxic residue from six of those pits. Instead, it will simply drain the ponds and put a cover on them — a strategy that the SELC argues leaves groundwater at risk. And while new coal ash produced by the Gallatin plant will be stored in a dry landfill, environmentalists worry that the landfill’s proximity to the Cumberland River still puts the waterway at risk of contamination.