No matter how an administrative battle over new environmental regulations for coal-powered utilities ends in Washington, the Tennessee Valley Authority says it already is cleaning up its act.
A coalition of national environmental groups blasted TVA and hundreds of other coal-burning power producers last week in an effort to get tightened federal rules for toxic coal ash contamination in waterways.
The report was produced by the Waterkeeper Alliance, Environmental Integrity Project, Clean Water Action, Earthjustice and the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign.
The groups were responding to a recent White House Office of Management and Budget action that they say is creating loopholes for the coal industry in a set of proposed EPA rules.
The EPA recently drafted regulations aimed at drying up ash ponds — large ponds that hold burned ash slurry. But the OMB inserted language that environmentalists say weakens the regulations and exempts many power producers.
Things left out
Conservationists say the coal industry has been shielded from the Clean Water Act since its creation, and the EPA is being hamstrung.
Coal-fired plants currently operate with water discharge permits from EPA that are administered by states. But in Tennessee, those permits only limit “concentrations of total suspended solid, oil, grease, as well as pH levels,” according to Shannon Ashford, spokeswoman for the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation.
Coal ash contains arsenic, mercury, selenium, lead, cadmium and other toxic metals, which aren’t covered by all current permits. Ash collected from the boilers and stacks of power plants is mixed with water and stored in the ponds to abate air contamination. Once solids in the ponds settle to the bottom, surface waters are filtered and treated and poured into nearby waterways.
TVA’s 11 coal-fired plants are specifically named in the report as having a legacy of coal ash water pollution — including the Kingston plant in Roane County, which spilled 5.4 million cubic yards of toxic ash in the Emory River in 2008. The spill, which damaged 26 homes, is the largest ash spill in U.S. history.
Focus on cleanup
But the authority says it has learned from mistakes. It is working to close its coal ponds and switch to a dry storage system ahead of proposed regulations.
TVA spokesman Duncan Mansfield said Thursday the authority agreed in 2009 after the Kingston spill to convert its 23 ash ponds to dry containment.
That’s no small feat. TVA expects the conversion to cost up to $2 billion and take eight to 10 years.
“Many existing impoundment ponds are scheduled to be closed over the next decade. The first plant conversion has been completed at Kingston Fossil Plant,” Mansfield said.
He also said Friday the authority “monitors for a broad range of pollutants including metals such as arsenic, mercury and lead” during the permit renewal process. And at most sites the authority monitors on a “routine basis,” Mansfield said.
Water quality monitoring at discharge points meets water quality standards, Mansfield said.
Even if tougher regulations are adopted by the EPA, the authority is already taking steps and will comply with any and all regulations, Mansfield said.
The OMB move comes weeks after a White House pledge to clean up coal power.
Just weeks ago President Barack Obama announced a campaign to clean up air pollution by the coal industry during an address at Georgetown University.
<em>Contact staff writer Louie Brogdon at lbrogdon@times freepress.com or 423-757-6481. Follow him on Twitter at @glbrogdoniv.</em>