Source: https://www.knoxnews.com, June 13, 2019
By: Jamie Satterfield
The Tennessee Valley Authority has agreed to dig up 12 million tons of coal ash stored in unlined pits at its Gallatin Fossil Plant in Middle Tennessee and clean up contamination from it, officials announced Thursday.
The Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation and Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery II said in a joint news release Thursday that the state reached a lawsuit settlement with TVA over coal ash contamination at the Gallatin plant and nearby waterways.
“We are pleased to bring this matter to a positive conclusion,” TDEC Commissioner David Salyers said. “This settlement will resolve environmental issues at the Gallatin Fossil Plant and we look forward to continuing our work with TVA and non-governmental organizations to further protect our environment and our citizens.”
Prompted by two environmental groups, the state sued the TVA in 2015 over pollution from coal ash dumps at the Gallatin Fossil Plant, the closest coal-fired power plant to Nashville.
Court documents show pollutants leach from the ash into the groundwater and then enter the Cumberland River, a source of drinking water for much of Middle Tennessee.
This is the second time since March that TVA has done an about-face on leaving coal ash in unlined dirt pits located next to sources of public drinking water in Tennessee.
Thursday’s announcement on the Gallatin plant came after five-year fight by environmental groups and in advance of a looming court battle with Tennessee regulators.
Reports of arsenic contamination at TVA’s Allen Fossil Plant in Memphis led TVA in March to announce it was reversing course and would dig up nearly 5 million tons of coal ash the utility dumped into a unlined pit near public drinking water sources.
Groundwater monitoring reports at TVA’s East Tennessee coal-fired plants made public earlier this year are revealing signs both unlined pits and newer lined “dry stack” coal ash dumps are leaking toxins, including arsenic, into public drinking water sources, too.
So far, no one has mounted a legal challenge to TVA’s plan to leave at least 5 million tons of coal ash in an unlined pit at its Bull Run Fossil Plant in Anderson County, which is set to close in 2023.
Similar plans for unlined pits at the Kingston Fossil Plant in Roane County and the now-shuttered John Sevier Fossil Plant in Knox County also have not been challenged in court yet.
TVA has posted all of its plans on the utility’s website, but time has run out for residents to raise questions and concerns through a public comment period.
TVA is under a TDEC order to reveal all of its coal ash pits, investigate each of them for contamination and risk of collapse or rupture and alert the public. TDEC officials have said it could be years before that self-investigation is complete.
Coal ash contains at least 26 toxins, heavy metals and radioactive isotopes, according to TVA’s own testing and Duke Energy’s Material Safety Data Sheet.
TDEC said Thursday the settlement in the Gallatin case requires TVA to remove 12 million tons of coal ash from its “active coal ash ponds” at the plant and “remediate the area.”
TVA can sell some of the ash it digs up for “beneficial reuse in concrete or other construction materials” but must place what it doesn’t “in a lined, permitted landfill,” the release stated.
TVA is being allowed to write its own plan on how the utility intends to safely dig up all that coal ash and where and how it will store the coal ash once it’s removed from the unlined pits. TVA won’t have to reveal that plan to TDEC or the public until September 2020, according to the release.
Under the settlement, TVA has 20 years to complete the removal. TVA estimates it will cost $640 million and says the money is already accounted for and won’t require boosting rates.
TVA also is being required to investigate the extent of contamination by coal ash at the Gallatin plant and make public those results. No time table for completion of that study was listed in Thursday’s release.
TVA’s new president and chief executive officer, Jeffrey Lyash, said it took time to study the issue.
“Early on the right solution wasn’t clear,” he said in a Thursday interview with The Tennessean.
TVA had to study the site, he said, including the area’s topography — which is characterized by underground sinkholes.
“Until you are through doing the analysis it’s not entirely clear of what the solution is,” Lyash said.
He took over leadership of the nation’s largest electricity provider in April.
Southern Environmental Law Center Managing Attorney Amanda Garcia is glad to see TVA changing course, but she said the utility continues to defend the safety of its coal ash dumps and only takes action when forced to do so.
“We are very pleased they are going to do the right thing at Gallatin, but we said five years ago there was enough evidence to support removing it,” Garcia said. “They have fought tooth and nail in state and federal courts to avoid responsibility and not just at Gallatin.”
The law center represented the Tennessee Clean Water Network and the Tennessee Scenic Rivers Association — both environmental groups — in an investigation of contamination and risk of collapse of the Gallatin coal ash pits.
In 2014, Garcia said, the law firm amassed enough evidence to show violations of state and federal water quality laws to file notice with TVA, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and TDEC of an intent to sue in federal court.
TDEC in 2015 decided to file its own lawsuit in Davidson County Chancery Court for violations by TVA at Gallatin of state water quality laws, and the environmental groups then intervened, becoming partners of sorts with TDEC.
TVA has been generating coal ash at the Gallatin plant since 1956. TVA has operated as many as eight coal-fired plants in Tennessee since its creation by congressional act in 1933.
For decades, TVA has been allowed to store coal ash at all of its coal-firing plants in Tennessee in unlined pits next to major waterways. The utility didn’t have to tell the public anything about coal ash — what was in it, how it was stored and whether it was causing contamination.
That changed when a dike on an unlined coal ash pit at the TVA Kingston Fossil Plant in East Tennessee’s Roane County gave way in December 2008, spilling 7.3 million tons of the toxic cash ash onto 300 acres of land.
The spill destroyed a half dozen homes, roadways and infrastructure and remains the largest human-created environmental disaster in U.S. history – larger than the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska and 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
TVA’s Office of the Inspector General would later conclude TVA was at fault for the dike failure, ignored failure warning signs and treated coal ash as a substance as safe as household garbage in its handling of the material and worker safety measures.
The EPA put TVA in charge of cleaning up its own mess in January 2009 – within three weeks of the spill. TVA hired Jacobs Engineering Inc., a global project management contractor.
Since the spill, at least 40 disaster workers have died from ailments and 400 are sick from ailments they say are linked scientifically to long-term exposure to the toxins and metals in coal ash, according to a tally from court records by Knoxville News Sentinel.
In 2013, 53 workers and their relatives filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Knoxville against TVA contractor Jacobs Engineering, alleging the firm’s safety managers lied about the dangers of coal ash and denied them adequate protective gear, such as face masks, respirators and Tyvek body suits.
Knoxville News Sentinel launched an investigation of the clean up in 2017. Another lawsuit against Jacobs in Roane County Circuit Court in March 2018 on behalf of an additional 180 workers and survivors. That case remains pending along with another involving 119 workers and survivors.
A jury in November 2018 ruled in the U.S. District Court case that Jacobs breached its contract with TVA and its duty of care to protect the workers. The jury also ruled Jacobs’ breach was capable of causing the sicknesses claimed by the workers.