Utility Won’t Clean Up Toxic Coal Ash Pits Because It’s Too Expensive

A Tennessee Valley Authority plants stands in Drakesboro Ky. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/DYLAN LOVAN
A Tennessee Valley Authority plants stands in Drakesboro Ky. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/DYLAN LOVAN

Nearly a decade after the worst coal ash spills in U.S. history, a federally owned public utility is closing 10 toxic coal ash pits across Tennessee and Alabama. But it won’t clear up the toxic residue from the pits, leaving open the possibility of water contamination.

The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) said Friday it planned to cap-in-place 10 unlined coal ash at six plants where the ash was dumped for some 50 years.

Coal ash is the byproduct of burning coal for energy and contains known carcinogens like arsenic, lead, and mercury. Energy companies dumped coal ash for decades into ditches they then filled with water. Usually unlined and close to waterways, coal ash ponds are known to leak, and went federally unregulated until 2014.

Utility Dumps Over 30 Million Gallons Of Coal Waste Water Into Virginia CreekClimate by CREDIT: Alejandro Davila Fragoso Allegations of dubious practices are mounting against a Virginia state…thinkprogress.orgSince then utilities all over the country have been moving to close their pits, while often proposing the cheaper option of dewatering ditches before closure. Environmentalists have been adamant to this type of decommissioning because they say it does little to prevent underground leaks. Instead, they say excavating pits and moving toxic residue to a permitted landfill is the better option.


TVA decided to close its coal ash ponds after a rupture at its Kingston Plant in 2008 spilled 1.1 billion gallons of toxic sludge into the Emory and Clinch rivers in Tennessee, according to published reports. The Kingston spill was one of the worst environmental disasters in U.S. history.

After more than a year of studies and hearings, TVA determined that capping these ponds was the fastest and cheapest method of closing them. The utility also said this was the safest option.

“Based on our analyses and decades of available monitoring data, we believe that TVA’s coal combustion residuals’ management activities are not harming human health or the environment,” John McCormick, TVA vice president of safety, river management and environment, said in a statement. “We also found that digging up the coal ash and moving it someplace else has more potential environmental and safety impacts than closure-in-place and adds significantly more time and costs for our ratepayers.”

Coal Power Plant Accused Of Contaminating Neighbors’ Well Water With CarcinogensClimate by CREDIT: Julia Rendleman Frances Kerr and James Tinker can’t discuss why is it that Dominion Virginia Power…thinkprogress.orgIn its record of decision, TVA said excavating the pit was more expensive and better to prevent groundwater contamination. The utility also said it received no objections from federal, state or local governments to closing coal ash ponds in place.

But environmental organizations criticized the decision. In a statement, the Southern Environmental Law Center said TVA’s decision puts water at risk of pollution because the utility will be leaving millions of tons of coal ash in unlined pits across the Southeast.


“TVA admits that removing the coal ash from unlined, leaking pits is the best way to reduce groundwater contamination risk and avoid decades of potential exposure to cancer-causing chemicals, yet it has decided to risk our communities’ health anyway,” said staff attorney Amanda Garcia, in the release. “Of all utilities, as a federal utility and the one responsible for the Kingston spill, TVA should be the one making a decision that protects the public health and our water supplies.”

The Southeast has 40 percent of the nation’s coal ash pits.