Tennessee Valley Authority’s Toxic Coal Ash: Addressing Coal Plants’ Hazardous Legacy

For decades, utilities disposed of coal ash — the hazardous substance left after burning coal for energy — by dumping it in unlined ponds and landfills. The quasi-public utility, Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), has a total of 56 coal ash dumpsites in Alabama, Kentucky, and Tennessee at 12 current and former coal plant sites.

After years of litigation and grassroots activism, on Apr. 25, 2024, the EPA issued a new rule that will force power plants to finally clean up their toxic coal ash. The EPA extended federal monitoring and cleanup requirements to hundreds of previously excluded older coal ash landfills and ponds that have been leaking toxic pollution into groundwater.

Note: Coal ash dumpsites referenced as “unregulated” throughout this page now are likely subject to federal regulation under the final rulemaking.

Coal ash contains hazardous pollutants including arsenic, boron, cobalt, chromium, lead, lithium, mercury, molybdenum, radium, selenium, and other heavy metals, which have been linked to cancer, heart and thyroid disease, reproductive failure, and neurological harm. In 2023, the EPA acknowledged that coal ash is even more dangerous than previously thought, with levels of arsenic and radiation that pose cancer risks.

Industry’s own data indicate that across the country 91% of coal plants are currently polluting groundwater above federal health standards with toxic pollutants.

Despite EPA’s 2015 Coal Ash Rule, which created the first-ever safeguards for coal ash disposal, many coal ash dumps remained unregulated due to sweeping exemptions for legacy coal ash ponds and inactive landfills. The exempted coal ash dumps are sited disproportionately in low-income communities and communities of color. The EPA extended clean up requirements to hundreds of old coal ash dumps across the country when it issued new regulations in the spring of 2024.

The devastating TVA Kingston coal ash spill of 2008.
The aftermath of the devastating coal ash spill at the TVA Kingston Fossil Plant near Kingston, Tenn., in 2008. More than 1 billion gallons of toxic coal ash sludge burst from a dam, sweeping away homes and contaminating two rivers. (Dot Griffith/ Appalachian Voice via United Mountain Defense)

Coal ash remains one of our nation’s largest toxic industrial waste streams. U.S. coal plants continue to produce approximately 75 million tons every year.

In 2023, the EPA acknowledged widespread noncompliance with existing coal ash regulations and ramped up enforcement after designating coal ash a national enforcement priority.

Action Needed

The magnitude of harm from recklessly dumped toxic coal ash requires decisive action from federal and state regulators.

  • TVA must be required to comply with the law and immediately clean up their pollution.
  • EPA and states must act quickly to ensure that TVA leave communities with sites that benefit rather than harm their health, environment, and economic status.
  • EPA must take action to prohibit the use of coal ash as construction fill and make polluters clean up areas where ash was used as fill.
Coal ash dump sites across the United States. Use this map to understand where coal ash might be stored near you and how a given site may be impacted by EPA's expansion of the federal Coal Ash Rule. (Caroline Weinberg / Earthjustice)

29 Regulated Coal Ash Disposal Sites at TVA Coal Plants

TVA has ten coal plants that host 29 federally regulated coal ash ponds and landfills that contain approximately 119 million cubic yards of toxic waste.

At all of TVA’s coal plants, their own groundwater monitoring data indicate coal ash has caused significant groundwater contamination at regulated dumpsites.

TVA has failed to initiate any plant-wide cleanups to restore water resources despite the legal requirement to do so.

Allen Memphis TN 1 unlined pond, Arsenic (x294), Boron (x4), Fluoride (x1), Lead (x3), Molybdenum (x9)
Bull Run Clinton TN 2 unlined ponds, 1 landfill Arsenic (x7), Boron (x9), Cobalt (x2), Lithium (x13), Molybdenum (x5), Sulfate (x3)
Colbert Tuscumbia AL 1 unlined pond Arsenic (x4), Boron (x2), Cobalt (x4)
Cumberland Cumberland City TN 2 unlined ponds, 2 landfills Arsenic (x1), Boron (x22), Cobalt (x3), Lithium (x2), Molybdenum (x1), Sulfate (x3)
Gallatin Gallatin TN 3 unlined ponds, 1 landfill Arsenic (x2), Boron (x6), Cobalt (x2), Lithium (x41), Molybdenum (x2), Sulfate (x1)
John Sevier Rogersville TN 1 unlined pond Lithium (x1)
Johnsonville New Johnsonville TN 1 unlined pond Boron (x4), Cobalt (x9), Sulfate (x1)
Kingston Kingston TN 2 unlined ponds, 1 landfill Arsenic (x16), Boron (x1), Cobalt (x20), Lithium (x10), Molybdenum (x5), Sulfate (x2)
Paradise Drakesboro KY 6 unlined ponds, 1 landfill Arsenic (x9), Boron (x21), Molybdenum (x1)
Shawnee West Paducah KY 2 unlined ponds, 2 landfills Boron (x2), Molybdenum (x3)

All data on groundwater contamination from coal ash derived from the utilities’ publicly accessible CCR Compliance Data and Information websites, and exceedances were calculated by Environmental Integrity Project.

For more information on regulated coal ash sites in Alabama, Kentucky and Tennessee, see Mapping the Coal Ash Contamination.

27 Coal Ash Legacy Ponds and Inactive Landfills at TVA Coal Plants

March 2024 Update: The table below underestimates the legacy units that may be regulated by EPA’s upcoming CCR Legacy Pond Rule. Additional legacy units at specific plants may be found in the national map, above.

TVA coal plants also host at least 27 inactive coal ash landfills and legacy ponds that escaped federal regulation. The exact number remains unknown because utilities were not required to report these sites.

These dumps are almost certainly contaminating water and threatening health and the environment, however, monitoring data are not currently available for most unregulated sites.

Nevertheless, at all but one TVA plant with legacy ponds and landfills, current monitoring data and historical data both indicate significant groundwater contamination.

Allen Memphis TN 0 1 Yes – Industry data and EPA damage case
Bull Run Clinton TN 0 2 Yes – Industry data and EPA damage case
Colbert Tuscumbia AL 0 2 Yes – Industry data and EPA damage case
John Sevier Rogersville TN 0 2 Yes – Industry data and EPA damage case
Kingston Kingston TN 0 1 Yes – Industry data and EPA damage case
Paradise Drakesboro KY 0 2 Yes – Industry data and EPA damage case
Shawnee West Paducah KY 0 1 Yes – Industry data and EPA damage case
Watts Bar Rhea County TN 3 0 Unknown – no data
Widows Creek Stevenson AL 12 1 Yes – EPA damage case

These data were developed by using EPA datasets relied upon in their 2007 and 2014 CCR risk assessments (Human and Ecological Risk Assessment of Coal Combustion Residuals) and comparing those datasets to the universe of regulated units.

“EPA damage case” denotes a site where US EPA has found documented groundwater contamination from coal ash.

For More Information

Christine Santillana, Legislative Counsel, Earthjustice, csantillana@earthjustice.org

Lisa Evans, Senior Counsel, Earthjustice, levans@earthjustice.org.

More on Coal Ash

Earthjustice fights in the courts for a long-term solution to the toxic menace of coal ash. And we act on behalf of dozens of clients and over 100 coalition partners to defeat legislative attempts to subvert federally enforceable safeguards of coal ash.

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