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Tennessee Valley Authority on Trial for Drinking Water Contamination from Coal Ash

Two environmental groups are suing the nation's largest public power utility for contaminating drinking water through prolonged leaks from coal ash ponds at TVA's coal-burning Gallatin Fossil Plant into the Cumberland River and ground water.
February 7, 2017, 8am PST | Irvin Dawid
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"Lawyers for the Southern Environmental Law Center, which filed the lawsuit in April 2015 on behalf of the Tennessee Clean Water Network and Tennessee Scenic Rivers Association, and TVA do not dispute that there have been past leaks from coal ash storage ponds at the power plant," writes Stacey Barchenger, courts reporter for The Tennessean.

The unlined storage ponds at the Gallatin site sit above limestone riddled with sinkholes that allowed the coal ash to seep into groundwater and into the Cumberland River, the environmental groups say. They say the utility knew the condition of the limestone would allow contaminated water to run through.

The Gallatin Fossil Plant is 37 miles northeast of Nashville.

Map from TVA Gallatin Fossil Plant, 1499 Steam Plant Rd, Gallatin, TN 37066 to Nashville, Tennessee

Courtesy of Google Maps: 45 min (37.5 mivia TN-386 S and I-65 S.

Chris Groves, a professor of hydrogeology — the movement of water under the earth's surface — at Western Kentucky University testified as the first witness for environmental groups... said [Jan. 30] that according to his analysis of TVA documents, about 27 billion gallons of coal ash waste seeped from storage ponds at the plant into the Cumberland River between 1970 and 1978.

By comparison, that's greater that the massive 2008 coal ash spill at TVA's Kingston power plant, Tennessee, and the 2010 B.P. oil spill.

TVA argued there was no violation of federal law and they were obeying the state permit. Lawyer David Ayliffe, defending TVA, said the environmental groups cannot prove a direct tie between contaminants in the water and the coal ash ponds. TVA said it cannot be held responsible for violations outside the Clean Water Act's five-year statute of limitations (which would bar the releases in the 1970s).

From AP report:

“The [2008] Kingston failure happened in an instant,” said Beth Alexander, a Nashville-based attorney of the Southern Environmental Law Center. “But the Gallatin failure has unfolded over years, out of sight.”

The four-day trial concluded Feb. 2. The ruling will "likely comes months later," according to the Southern Environmental Law Center.

The trial focused on the Gallatin Fossil Plant, but the same conditions that led to the pollution there are present at every coal ash impoundment in Tennessee, and in the Southeast. The trial is part of SELC’s ongoing commitment to communities dealing with coal ash impoundments and the danger they present to drinking water, to their neighborhoods, and to the environment. 

In January 2015, the state of Tennessee filed suit against the plant. "The Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation and the Tennessee Attorney General say the lawsuit...will also help to determine the extent of the contamination," according to The Tennessean.
Full Story:
Published on Monday, January 30, 2017 in The Tennessean
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