The 1.1 billion gallons of toxic sludge that flowed into the Emory and Clinch rivers from a ruptured coal ash pond at the Kingston Fossil Plant in 2009 has been cleaned up and most of it removed to a landfill in Alabama.
But in the wake of America's worst coal ash spill, the Tennessee Valley Authority and other utilities still are having to clean up other coal ash sites to meet new federal regulations adopted after the Kingston disaster.
TVA, which was forced to spend more than $1 billion to clean up the ash spill at its Kingston coal plant, plans a cheaper alternative to closing coal ash ponds at its other coal facilities.
In its final environmental impact study released this week, TVA said it plans to spend $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 and likely raising TVA electric rates to cover the expense. 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.
"The closure-in-place is the preferred option, because it allows us to store and monitor these coal combustion residuals, and removing them would create its own set of environmental issues with truck or rail traffic and having to store this somewhere else," TVA spokesman Scott Brooks said Wednesday.
But environmental groups want TVA to match what other Southern utilities are doing to remove the coal ash from their power plants. Amanda Garcia, a staff attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center in Nashville, said TVA's plan would permanently cover up millions of tons of coal ash in leaking, unlined pits in or adjacent to rivers in Alabama, Tennessee and Kentucky. Garcia said TVA's own monitoring data has shown the sites have polluted groundwater with toxic metals from coal ash.
"We're incredulous that TVA, the poster child for coal ash mismanagement thanks to the Kingston disaster, continues to push forward blindly with a plan that ensures ongoing pollution for decades to come," she said. "Coal ash has become one of the most pressing public health and environmental concerns today, and other utilities are responding accordingly — yet TVA continues to claim leadership while refusing to do the responsible thing."
In Alabama, the Southern Environmental Law Center filed a notice of intent to sue on behalf of Tennessee Riverkeeper, Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, Shoals Environmental Alliance and Waterkeeper Alliance for surface and groundwater violations at TVA's Colbert Fossil Plant. The environmental groups claim significant amounts of pollutants are being discharged from the ash ponds into Cane Creek, a tributary of the Tennessee River.
"Make no mistake: With this plan, TVA has chosen a cover-up instead of a cleanup, continuing a longstanding pattern of choosing to do less than the bare minimum in managing its coal ash pollution," said Keith Johnston, managing attorney of the Birmingham office of the Southern Environmental Law Center. "If TVA is allowed to proceed, this decision will pose a risk to our drinking water sources and waterways for years to come."
In contrast to TVA's approach, utilities in Georgia and in North and South Carolina have chosen to clean up some sites by excavating coal ash lagoons and taking the ash residues to dry, lined storage away from waterways.
Georgia Power announced in April that it would be closing all 29 of its ash pits, and last week disclosed that at 16 coal ash storage sites, the contents will be excavated and removed.
Amelia Shenstone, campaigns director for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, welcomed Georgia Power's decision to remove the coal ash deposits.
"It is a step in the right direction to move from unlined wet storage to lined, dry storage," she said. "Removing this festering problem from public waterways is a critical step for protecting human health and the environment."
The federal government adopted new coal ash rules following the 2009 Kingston coal ash spill to limit pollution of groundwater, rivers and other water supplies from the toxic remains of coal after it's burned to produce electricity.
In addition to its plans to cap its coal ash ponds, TVA also is spending about $1.5 billion to replace all of its wet ash coal ponds with dry storage of all coal combustion byproducts. Additionally, TVA established a special coal ash monitoring facility in the basement of its Chattanooga Office Complex.
"All of these safety efforts have made TVA the industry leader in the safe, responsible coal ash storage," said Nick McClung, manager of TVA's Advanced Technology for Impoundment Monitoring facility, which uses more than 7,000 real-time sensors in place to monitor impoundments. "My team receives texts and emails if there is any irregularity. If it is serious, we can immediately activate the ATIM center."
In its final environmental impact statement, TVA said it will cap coal ash ponds at its Allen, Bull Run, Colbert, John Sevier, Kingston and Widows Creek fossil plants.
To develop its coal ash disposal plan, TVA hosted 10 open house meetings to gain public comments in coal plant communities. Although not required, TVA will accept comments on the final environmental impact statement until July 9.
The documents can be found at www.tva.gov/nepa.
Contact Dave Flessner at firstname.lastname@example.org.