Ann Harris, 70, remembers growing up near the Clinch River in Tennessee, frequently swimming and fishing its waters with her family. For the past few decades, the river has changed drastically. Its once clear waters now look and smell like sewage, which led Harris to sell her ancestral home and move away eight years ago.
Now, the Clinch River could be the dumping ground for even more toxic pollution. The Tennessee Valley Authority was granted permission to discharge mercury, selenium, and other chemicals from its Kingston Fossil Plant into the Clinch River — the same river that was devastated on December 22, 2008 when a dam broke, spilling one billion gallons of coal ash into its waters.
Earthjustice, Environmental Integrity Project, and the Sierra Club joined together to appeal this Clean Water Act permit that was granted by the Tennessee Department of Environment & Conservation (TDEC) on October 16. The appeal filed today before the Tennessee Water Quality Control Board challenges TDEC’s failure to limit the discharge of toxic pollutants from the Kingston plant.
"The TVA is the polluter now, instead of the conserver of the river," said Harris. "This river is the lifeblood of a few million people. TVA needs to go look at how they’ve damaged the river; they’re destroying it to the point that it’s almost useless."
While TVA finally installed a "scrubber" system to reduce emissions of air pollutants, the plant now plans to generate an entirely new waste stream and discharge one million gallons of polluted wastewater into the Clinch River daily.
"This river has been through enough," said Megan Klein, Earthjustice attorney. "It is time for TVA to start taking its responsibilities to protect the public seriously and to install pollution controls for water as well as air."
Water quality in the Clinch River is already impaired, and the river cannot withstand additional pollution. Since 2002, the Clinch River has been identified by the EPA as having unacceptably high levels of mercury, chlorane and other toxins. The river’s condition is even worse after the coal ash disaster last year. Nevertheless, TDEC is not requiring TVA to limit the amount of mercury, selenium or other metals that will be discharged from its new scrubber system.
Under the Clean Water Act TVA should be required to help restore water quality and at a minimum to install the best available treatment technology for its wastewater. Instead, TVA is dumping essentially untreated wastewater into the Clinch River.
Unfortunately, TVA is not the only utility to sacrifice water quality in a bid to clean up air emissions. Coal-fired power plants around the country are installing scrubbers without proper controls to limit water pollution because the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has failed to set national standards governing wastewater discharges from scrubber systems. This means that water pollution nationwide is increasing as a result of air emissions reductions. As the EPA recently acknowledged in a report on wastewater from coal-fired power plants:
"There are a number of pollutants present in wastewaters generated at coal-fired power plants that can impact the environment, including metals (e.g., arsenic selenium, mercury), TDS and nutrients," the report states. "The primary routes by which coal combustion wastewater impacts the environment are through discharges to surface waters, leaching to ground water, and by surface impoundments and constructed wetlands acting as attractive nuisances that increase wildlife exposure to the pollutants contained in the systems. EPA found the interaction of coal combustion wastewaters with the environment has caused a wide range of environmental effects to aquatic life."
"We know that coal waste is becoming increasingly toxic," said Lyndsay Moseley, a Tennessee native and Beyond Coal Campaign Representative with the Sierra Club. "We need strong regulations to protect communities — to keep toxic coal waste out of our waters, and ensure it is disposed of properly."
"The Clean Water Act requires TDEC to eliminate toxic discharges from the Kingston plant," said Lisa Widawsky, EIP attorney. "Instead, incredibly, TDEC is authorizing new discharges of toxic heavy metals — to the tune of one million gallons a day — into the same river devastated by the Kingston coal ash spill. More than a third of all power plants have eliminated toxic discharges by installing zero discharge systems, and TDEC must require the same at Kingston."