Judge Rules TVA Must Move Gallatin Coal Ash

A federal judge on August 4 said the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) must dig up coal ash at one of its power plants and move it to a lined waste site. The order came in a suit filed by the Tennessee Scenic Rivers Association (TSRA) and the Tennessee Clean Water Network (TCWN), who said coal ash stored at the TVA’s Gallatin Fossil Plant has been polluting the nearby Cumberland River for decades in violation of the Clean Water Act.

U.S. District Judge Waverly Crenshaw in Nashville, Tenn., said that although there is little evidence thus far that seeping coal ash has polluted the river, uncertainty about future pollution and its possible danger will continue to create conflicts, and moving the ash is the best way to resolve an “untenable situation that has gone for far too long.” The Southern Environmental Law Center in 2014 announced its intention to represent the two environmental groups in the suit.

The case involves a coal ash pit at Gallatin that was closed in 1970, but where the coal ash ponds remain in use. The Gallatin plant is about 40 miles northeast of Nashville. The parties in the suit  presented their cases in a bench trial earlier this year; a separate state case in the matter is scheduled for trial in December.

Waverly in his ruling wrote: “While the decision to build the Ash Pond Complex [at Gallatin] is in the past, the consequences of that decision continue today, and it now falls on the Court to address them. The way to do so is not to cover over those decades-old mistakes, but to pull them up by their roots. TVA, as the entity responsible for the ponds, must be the entity to do so.”

TVA spokesman Scott Brooks issued the utility’s response after the ruling, saying TVA is reviewing the order and has not decided whether it will appeal. He reiterated that the court said there is no evidence of human health or environmental impacts from the coal ash ponds at Gallatin. The utility said it would cost about $2 billion to excavate the ash and move it from the site. TVA said it would be safer and more environmentally friendly to continue to store the ash in the Gallatin ponds, but cover the ash with a cap, known as “capping in place,” at a cost of about $230 million. The judge said that method would be “rolling the dice” with regard to future impacts from the coal ash.

“If capping in place did prove inadequate, the likely, if not inevitable, result would be yet more litigation—and, of course, decade after decade of the public simply having to hope that whatever unplanned, incidental leakage that was coming from the impoundments was not enough to do them significant harm,” Waverly wrote.

TVA said it has invested billions of dollars to find safer ways to store coal ash, including converting its wet coal ash storage to dry storage at all of its operations across seven states in the South. That decision was made in the wake of a December 2008 spill at TVA’s Kingston Fossil Plant in Tennessee, when more than 5 million cubic yards of sludge from the Kingston plant spilled into the Emory and Clinch rivers and destroyed nearby homes.

Darrell Proctor is a POWER associate editor (@DarrellProctor1, @POWERmagazine)