Clean water and clean energy advocates are challenging a water permit that allows the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) to dump over 20 million gallons of contaminated water into Kentucky Lake every day. TVA has never invested in effective pollution controls to prevent water pollution at its Johnsonville Fossil Plant, which is TVA’s oldest plant, constructed in 1948.
“It’s time for TVA to decide whether it will modernize or cling to old practices,” said Josh Galperin of Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, which is appealing the permit along with Tennessee Clean Water Network. “TVA is dumping its wastewater in unlined pits and calling that treatment, but the water that flows out of those ash ponds and into the river is full of toxins. People live and play around the Kentucky Lake and for that reason both TVA and the state have not only a legal obligation but a public responsibility to minimize contamination.”
In recent reports, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has highlighted the problem that wastewater discharged from ash ponds is high in dissolved metals such as arsenic, mercury, hexavalent chromium, and selenium. The ponds, otherwise known as surface impoundments, also are at risk of structural failure and spills. In 2008, the impoundment at TVA’s Kingston plant burst, spilling one billion pounds of coal ash sludge, and that disaster was closely followed by another serious spill at TVA’s Widows Creek plant in Alabama.
At Johnsonville, TVA’s ash impoundment is located on an “island” made of coal ash in the middle of the Tennessee River at the Kentucky Lake, a popular recreational spot for boating, fishing and other activities. “When you see a waste dump sitting on top of an island made of coal ash, there is something very wrong with that picture,” said Abigail Dillen, an attorney with Earthjustice, who is representing the groups. “It’s a mess, and the first step to cleaning it up is getting a handle on pollution from the dump that is going straight into the river.”
As the Tennessee Department of Environmental Conservation (TDEC) has known for several years, “Ash Island” has several leaks and seeps that allow contaminated wastewater to flow into the river. Given these concerns, it is no surprise that a TDEC employee has called “Ash Island” “a disaster waiting to happen.”
In their appeal, the groups are seeking to compel water permit limits that would force TVA to phase out the use of surface impoundments as quickly as possible and to use the best technology available to prevent the discharge of toxic heavy metals in the meantime. “We hope that TVA abandons wet ash storage in the near future,” said Abel Russ, with the Environmental Integrity Project. “In the meantime the Clean Water Act requires numeric effluent limits to prevent unnecessary releases of toxic pollutants. That’s the law and we want to make sure that TDEC and TVA are following it.”
“It is disappointing to me that the state of Tennessee continues to issue boilerplate permits with no limits on metals to these facilities,” said Renée Victoria Hoyos, Executive Director of the Tennessee Clean Water Network. “This state was ground zero for coal ash disaster and yet we continue to see little leadership from TDEC to protect human and environmental health by requiring stronger limits, or limits at all for that matter, on metals we know are harmful. This is the second such permit issued to TVA and we have already appealed the first. Frankly, it’s embarrassing.”