Environmentalists blast TVA plan to leave coal ash at power plants

Nick McClung, TVA's manager for risk and quality assurance, shows monitoring system TVA will use for the next 30 years to track coal ash residue stored in ash ponds TVA plans to close and cap at existing sites.
Nick McClung, TVA's manager for risk and quality assurance, shows monitoring system TVA will use for the next 30 years to track coal ash residue stored in ash ponds TVA plans to close and cap at existing sites.
photo FILE - In this Dec. 22, 2008 file photo, an aerial view shows homes that were destroyed when a retention pond wall collapsed at the Tennessee Valley Authorities Kingston Fossil Plant in Harriman, Tenn. No one was physically hurt in the Dec. 22, 2008, spill of coal ash from a Tennessee Valley Authority plant storage pond into the Emory River and across some 300 acres in the picturesque Swan Pond community about 35 miles west of Knoxville. But property owners in the area say they have been hurt financially. (AP Photo/Wade Payne, File)

TVA will close and cap 10 coal ash ponds at power plants across the Valley, but the federal utility will not dig up and remove the toxic coal residues as many environmentalists urged to limit future groundwater and soil pollution.

TVA on Friday issued its record of decision, affirming its plans to keep the coal ash at six fossil plants where the ash was dumped in ponds over the past half century. After more than a year of study and hearings, TVA said the best, fastest and least- cost method of disposing and cleaning up its coal ash ponds is to dewater those facilities, close the ponds and put a cap on the wastes to prevent any leakage.

"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 Friday. "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."

Environmental groups denounced TVA's decision Friday, warning that it keeps toxic materials stored at riverfront plants near drinking water supplies and is less comprehensive than ash cleanups being done by many other Southern utilities.

"We are deeply disappointed in TVA's decision to take the cheap way out, instead of living up to its promise to protect our communities after the disastrous Kingston coal ash spill in 2008," said Scott Banbury, conservation program coordinator for the Sierra Club's Tennessee Chapter. "TVA should clean up - not just cover up - the toxic coal ash pits that have been polluting our groundwater and threatening our drinking supplies for decades. The only way to adequately protect our public health and environment is to move coal ash to dry lined storage away from waterways."

TVA decided to phase out its wet storage of coal ash following the 2008 rupture of a coal ash pond at its Kingston Fossil Plant, which spilled 1.1 billion gallons of toxic sludge into the Emory and Clinch Rivers. The Kingston accident was one of the worst environmental spills in U.S. history.

Although TVA is ending future use of coal ash ponds, it still has a number of wet storage facilities where coal ash built up over more than half a century of coal-fired power generation has been stored. The ash will be capped and left in unlined pits at 10 sites at Kingston, Bull Run, John Sevier, and Allen in Tennessee, and Colbert and Widows Creek in Alabama.

TVA said the former coal ash ponds will continue to be monitored for at least 30 years. Studies by TVA and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency also indicate that the capping system will further reduce potential impacts on groundwater, although environmental groups worry that keeping the coal ash storage on site could cause leaks into nearby groundwater supplies.

"EPA did not identify any deficiencies in the information we provided," McCormick said.

But environmental groups continue to push TVA to dig up and remove the toxic materials.

"Over the objection of people who live, play and drink water downstream, TVA is barreling forward with a plan to allow toxic coal ash contamination to continue to pollute the groundwater that feeds our rivers and streams in Tennessee, Alabama and Kentucky," said Amanda Garcia, staff attorney at Southern Environmental Law Center in Nashville.

TVA, which was forced to spend more than $1 billion to clean up the ash spill at its Kingston coal plant, expects to spend far less closing coal ash ponds at its other coal facilities.

In its environmental study, TVA estimates it will cost about $280 million and take up to 2.7 years to close and cap 10 coal ash ponds at a half dozen of its coal plants where the utility used wet ash storage.

TVA estimates closing and removing the coal ash from those sites would be more than 10 times as expensive, costing more than $3 billion. TVA's study projects it would take 84 years to remove all the coal ash from Widows Creek by rail and more than 170 years to remove the ash from the shuttered Widows Creek coal plant by truck.

But Garcia noted that utilities in South Carolina are all moving coal ash from waterfront pits at less cost than originally forecast and with dramatic declines in groundwater contamination.

"Utilities in North Carolina, Georgia, and South Carolina are moving coal ash to dry lined storage or recycling it for concrete, protecting communities and drinking water supplies," Garcia said. "Of all utilities, as 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," she said.

Contact Dave Flessner at dflessner@timesfreepress.com or at 423-757-6340.

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