Environmental groups threaten to sue TVA over Colbert coal ash

Conservation groups have charged that the Tennessee Valley Authority’s coal-fired Colbert power plant is violating the Clean Water Act and that a failure to address these violations will result in a lawsuit.

As outlined in a 60-day notice of intent letter sent to TVA on Feb. 13, violations at the facility have caused significant amounts of pollutants to be discharged illegally into Cane Creek, a tributary of the Tennessee River, as well as groundwater in the area, the groups said.

A TVA spokesman said Feb. 15 that the utility has gotten the notice of intent, is reviewing it and will respond at the appropriate time.

The letter—submitted by the Southern Environmental Law Center on behalf of Tennessee Riverkeeper, Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, Shoals Environmental Alliance, and Waterkeeper Alliance—details how alleged seepage from the facility’s coal ash ponds contains arsenic, a toxic substance and known carcinogen, as well as selenium, lead, iron, cadmium, and other pollutants.

“The Colbert Fossil Plant has had ongoing and persistent pollution problems from its coal ash ponds for decades,” said Keith Johnston, Managing Attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center’s Birmingham office, in a Feb. 13 statement. “The only acceptable remedy is for TVA to stop this unpermitted discharge and to start storing all coal ash safely away from our waterways.”

Built in the 1950s, Colbert is located on the Tennessee River and adjacent to one of its major tributaries, Cane Creek.

The 60-day notice outlines ongoing surface and groundwater contamination from Colbert. TVA’s own documentation shows that its coal ash ponds and other waste impoundments have polluted the groundwater for almost thirty years, but despite TVA’s awareness of the contamination, it has continued to dispose and store the plant’s coal waste irresponsibly, the groups said. In addition, Tennessee Riverkeeper has documented additional toxic discharges from the site flowing directly into Cane Creek.

The facility’s contamination originates from two coal ash ponds covering 127 acres total. The impoundments are unlined, the groups said. And, indeed, documentation has confirmed seepage of arsenic and other pollutants through the sides and the bottoms of the ash ponds. At one location, sampling has shown arsenic levels that were more than fifty times Alabama’s Maximum Contaminant Level for arsenic.

Both the groundwater contamination and unpermitted surface water discharges constitute violations of the facility’s National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit and the Clean Water Act.

“The contamination at Colbert is indicative of a broader problem across the Southeast, namely that utility regulators need to pay more attention to the problems posed and caused by these ill-maintained coal ash ponds,” said Ulla Reeves, Regional Program Director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. “With TVA’s history of questionable coal ash management and in light of the Kingston coal ash disaster of 2008, we hope this notice will serve as another wake up call that TVA needs to clean up its act.”

Colbert Fossil Plant has five coal-fired units with a summer net capability of 1,184 MW. TVA has said it plans to remove Colbert Unit 5 from service effective Dec. 31, 2015, under a clean-air agreement worked out with state and federal regulators.

About Barry Cassell 20414 Articles
Barry Cassell is Chief Analyst for GenerationHub covering coal and emission controls issues, projects and policy. He has covered the coal and power generation industry for more than 24 years, beginning in November 2011 at GenerationHub and prior to that as editor of SNL Energy’s Coal Report. He was formerly with Coal Outlook for 15 years as the publication’s editor and contributing writer, and prior to that he was editor of Coal & Synfuels Technology and associate editor of The Energy Report. He has a bachelor’s degree from Central Michigan University.