In response to legal pressure from conservation groups, the Tennessee Valley Authority has agreed to spare one of the nation’s most successful nurseries for imperiled freshwater species as part of a plan to retrofit the aging coal-fired Gallatin Fossil Plant with air-pollution control equipment. TVA’s final decision to extend the plant’s life and rebuild the Cumberland River Aquatic Center nursery came after the conservation groups filed a notice of intent to sue the agency under the Endangered Species Act for proposing to shutter the endangered mussel propagation facility to make room for additional coal ash and equipment.
“It’s a bittersweet victory that TVA has agreed to save the aquatic center but continues to burn filthy coal,” said Tierra Curry, a biologist at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Saving the mussel nursery is obviously the right thing to do, but continuing to burn coal threatens the survival of mussels everywhere.”
In November, the Center for Biological Diversity, Tennessee Environmental Council, Sierra Club and Tennessee Scenic Rivers Association filed comments urging TVA to save the hatchery while transitioning the plant away from burning coal. The groups urged TVA to spend the more than $1 billion it will cost to upgrade the plant’s pollution equipment on energy efficiency and clean-energy alternatives instead of extending the life of the aging power plant.
“Tennessee deserves better,” said John McFadden, executive director of the Tennessee Environmental Council. “TVA’s continuing to burn coal puts much of Tennessee’s drinking water and economy at risk and pushes our most endangered wildlife closer to extinction. In addition, burning coal fails to generate the kind of economic growth we could be seeing from energy efficiency and renewable energy, such as solar.”
“TVA ignored better, cleaner options for powering Tennessee,” said Louise Gorenflo, lead volunteer with Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign. “While leading utilities across the country are replacing their old coal plants with clean energy solutions, saving their customers money and cleaning the air in the process, TVA is taking a major step back by doubling down on a plant that’s over 50 years old. The public strongly supported better options, yet TVA is sadly ignoring them.”
“TVA is determined to throw good money after bad into an old coal plant instead of looking at alternatives that will not only protect the environment but also position TVA to keep rates down in the clean energy economy of the future,” said Earthjustice attorney Abigail Dillen.
The Cumberland River Aquatic Center has been remarkably effective at rearing endangered mussels, producing 18,000 just last year. It is the most productive hatchery in the country for rearing endangered pink mucket mussels; it also rears lake sturgeon, which are listed as endangered by the state of Tennessee, and alligator gar. Nearly $800,000 in public funds has already been spent to build the center’s conservation program. TVA is required by law to support the aquatic center’s operations in order to compensate for damage its dam systems do to endangered wildlife throughout Tennessee.
“Freshwater mussels are amazing animals that serve as barometers of stream health and water quality,” said Charlie Wilkerson, president of the Tennessee Scenic Rivers Association. “They are a critical part of our river ecosystem and we should do everything we can to protect them.”
Freshwater mussels filter water constantly and serve an important role in improving water quality throughout Tennessee and the Southeast. More species of freshwater mussels are found in the Southeast than anywhere else in the world, but 75 percent of the region’s mussels are now at risk of extinction. Once widely used to make buttons and jewelry, mussel shells, like trees, accumulate growth rings that can be used to determine their age. Freshwater mussels can live for centuries, making them among the longest-lived invertebrates.