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TVA's Gallatin Steam Plant.

The Tennessee Valley Authority is endangering the drinking water for millions of people by continuing to store coal ash from its Gallatin Fossil Plant in ponds that leak into the Cumberland River, environmental groups said Monday.

Although TVA is scheduled to replace its coal ash ponds at Gallatin by 2016, the Southern Environmental Law Center and other critics of coal said TVA needs to act quicker to prevent a potential coal ash spill far worse than the spill six years ago that caused more than $1 billion of damage around TVA's Kingston Fossil Plant.

Environmental groups Monday served TVA with a 60-day notice of their intent to sue to force changes in how TVA disposes of the ash and other residues from the coal burned in the four generating units at the Gallatin plant. Environmentalists contend that the 55-year-old coal plant has improperly stored coal ash in unlined, unprotected ponds.

"TVA has known for years that the coal ash ponds at Gallatin are leaking into our rivers and our groundwater," said Stephanie Durman Matheny, an attorney at Tennessee Clean Water Network. "You would imagine that in the wake of the Kingston spill -- which TVA is still cleaning up six years later -- it would make sure another disaster on that scale would never happen again. Unfortunately, Gallatin's leaking coal ash ponds are proof that TVA hasn't learned its lesson, and we're the ones who will pay the price if another disaster happens."

Charlie Wilkerson, president of Tennessee Scenic Rivers Association, said the Gallatin coal ash ponds hold more than 2 billion gallons of pollutants. Wilkerson said "a disaster there has the potential to dwarf the Kingston coal ash spill," where 1.2 billion gallons of sludge poured out of a ruptured coal ash pond two days before Christmas in 2008.

TVA spokesman Scott Brooks said that the utility will respond to any litigation in the courts. But he noted that TVA is moving to replace the coal ash ponds at Gallatin within the next two years as part of an TVA-wide effort to move to dry storage of coal ash at all of its fossil plants.

"We are working with TDEC on this approach," Brooks said. "Existing ash ponds will then be dried out, covered and closed."

But in 2013, EPA found that some of the earthen dams at the Gallatin Plant were only in "fair" condition and in need of improvement.

TVA also is spending more than $1 billion to install scrubbers and selective catalytic control (SCR) devices at Gallatin to limit air pollution from the plant.

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

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