The Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) informed the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) on Nov. 10 that it intends to bring suit under the Clean Water Act to stop the release of coal ash pollutants it says are leaking from the TVA’s Gallatin coal ash ponds into the Cumberland River.

Gallatin Fossil Plant is a four-unit coal-fired generating station with a net summer capacity of 976 MW. The facility was constructed from 1953 to 1959. The TVA says the plant consumes about 12,350 tons of coal per day. The site is also home to eight combustion turbines—half of which were added in the early-1970s while the other four were completed in 2000—with a combined 600-MW capacity. The combustion turbines are designed to run on natural gas or ultra-low sulfur fuel oil, and typically only operate during peak demand periods.

SELC is representing the Tennessee Scenic Rivers Association and the Tennessee Clean Water Network (TCWN). POWER spoke to Stephanie Durman Matheny, attorney at TCWN, who claims that the TVA has known for years that the ponds are leaking into the river.

Matheny said that after the Kingston coal ash spill, the TVA hired Stantec Consulting Services to inspect all of its ash ponds. She believes that the TVA has been aware of seeps at least since those inspections were completed and noted that the facility has been conducting its own groundwater monitoring for some time.

According to the Stantec assessment that was completed in early 2009, inspectors identified concerns at the Gallatin site. In the report, it was noted that Karst bedrock and sinkhole activity is present plant-wide, which was a concern. There is also historical documentation in annual reports from the late 1970s that discuss sinkhole leakage in Bottom Ash Pond A through a sinkhole located in the south portion of the pond, as well as sinkhole leakage in Fly Ash Pond E through a sinkhole located in the north portion of the pond. Indications of on-going seepage were observed at Seepage Areas 1A, 2E, and 2F located just beyond the toes of the exterior dikes of the closed disposal area. In Stantec’s judgment, the seeps were related to groundwater flow/seepage along shallow bedrock, which was surfacing beyond the toe of dike slopes (rock outcrops were observed at some seepage areas).

“We’re also concerned about flooding,” Matheny explained. She said that in May 2010, when the Cumberland River experienced what the Army Corps of Engineers reportedly described as a 1,000-year flood event, the Gallatin ash ponds were “flooded over and we’re concerned that that could happen again.”

“We’re concerned about this issue fleet-wide for the TVA,” Matheny said. She mentioned that the Allen Fossil Plant, located southwest of Memphis on the Mississippi River, also deals with flooding concerns, and that the Johnsonville Fossil Plant has an “ash island in the middle of the river.” Matheny said that, although the TVA is closing the Johnsonville plant, it is unclear to TCWN what the company’s plans are for removing the facility’s ash.

Responding to POWER’s inquiry, the TVA said that it “is aggressively moving forward with plans to convert from wet ash storage to dry storage at Gallatin.  We are in the process of constructing a new dry storage landfill, which will be operational in 2016. We are working with [the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation] on this approach. Existing ash ponds will then be dried out, covered and closed. Environmental stewardship is one of TVA’s top priorities.  In addition to this ash conversion process, we are investing $1 billion to install clean air technology at Gallatin.”

Aaron Larson, associate editor (@AaronL_Power, @POWERmagazine)