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Coal Ash Contamination: Coming to a Groundwater Source Near You

TVA Trial Reveals that Utility Knew about Risky Slurry Pond

It was the largest coal ash disaster in US history. In December 2008, a massive Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) retention pond broke open and spilled more than 5.4 million cubic yards of coal slurry across some 400 acres in Roane County, Tennessee. Since then, neighbors, investigators, and environmental groups have tried to figure out whether the accident was a freak occurrence or a disaster waiting to happen.

Photo courtesy TVAAn aerial view of the December 2008 fly-ash sludge spill caused by a failed dike at the
Kingston, Tennessee power plant.

A trial now underway suggests that this disaster was years in the making. Last week, TVA’s inspector general testified in court that TVA, the nation’s largest public utility, refused to address concerns about the safety of the Kingston coal ash impoundment that eventually failed in 2008. Inspector general Richard Moore said that warnings were voiced as early as 1985 in an engineer’s internal memo. This means that for 23 years leading up to the disaster, TVA knew of potential dangers and did nothing.

The testimony is part of a trial that began this week involving some 230 plaintiffs who are seeking damages from TVA for the spill that inundated their community with coal ash, which contains arsenic, lead, cobalt, chromium, cadmium, manganese, mercury, boron and a host of other heavy metals.

Chris Buttram, a TVA civil engineer and the first witness to be called, testified that when he inspected the earthen dam nearly three months before the disaster, he noted several eroded areas on the bench of the dredge cell which later collapsed that, in his words, needed to be repaired “immediately.” But he didn’t write his report of that inspection until after the disaster. And he removed the several instances of the word “immediately” at the recommendation of TVA media relations and also, he said, “because the disaster had already happened.”

There is a threat of similar disasters occurring in other places. Lax regulations and careless enforcement characterize the handling and disposal of the 136 million tons of ash that the United States produces each year at its coal-burning power plants. The byproduct is still under no federal regulations, even after the EPA projected a final determination this year on two proposed rules under the federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.

The TVA spill has brought coal ash into the light, but many people are still unaware of the more than 1,300 coal combustion products disposal areas across the nation. Sierra Club Associate Attorney Craig Segall calls these “slow motion spills.”

For example, this summer, TVA’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) released a report that said exceedances were found in 2008 and 2009 at seven of eight fossil fuel plants with solid waste requirements to monitor groundwater. Of these, two plants, Cumberland and Gallatin, had exceedances that resulted in Phase III assessment, which occurs when a health-based standard is exceeded. At Cumberland, there were exceedances of arsenic, selenium and vanadium, and at Gallatin, there were exceedances of beryllium, cadmium, nickel and vanadium.

At five other sites with exceedances, no corrective action was required, since they were not above health-based standards, which are based only on drinking water standards.

This is an egregious oversight of regulatory agencies, says Tennessee Licensed Professional Geologist Mark Quarles, who has written numerous investigations of coal ash storage sites for the Environmental Integrity Project (EIP) and the Sierra Club. He says when exceedances are below health-based standards, industry says all is well.

“The other part of the story that’s equally important is what the exceedances are doing to fish and aquatic life,” he says. “Ultimately, fish and aquatic life are part of the food chain, so unless you’re looking at that impact, you can’t possibly make the assumption that there’s no damage to human health.”

Quarles calls drinking water standards “the low-hanging fruit.” He says that unless you sample off-site, you don’t know what the impact to aquatic life is. Of some 60 sites in 12 states that he has inspected, he says just twice was there off-site monitoring, whether downstream or on adjacent property.

While it has come under well-deserved scrutiny for its handling of coal combustion waste, Quarles doesn’t think TVA is much different than other utilities across the nation.  In Harm’s Way, a 2010 EIP, Earthjustice and Sierra Club report to which Quarles contributed, outlines 39 damage cases of groundwater or surface water contamination in 21 states. That report builds upon an earlier investigation, which documented damage at 31 sites in 14 states. “This total represents nearly a three-fold increase in the number of damage cases identified in EPA’s 2000 Regulatory Determination on the Wastes from the Combustion of Fossil Fuels,” says In Harm’s Way.

There are two trends across the board, Quarles says: coal waste disposal areas leak and can quickly reach groundwater, and regulatory agencies’ enforcement of those findings is “virtually nil.” 

Indeed, at the two Phase III assessment sites identified in TVA’s OIG report that required corrective action be initiated within 90 days, such action remains “not yet identified” three years after the exceedances were recorded.

While the high-profile trial plays out in Tennessee over the most visible coal ash spill in history, the less visible “slow motion spills” continue unchecked at coal waste disposal areas across the nation.

Holly Haworth is currently writing about coal ash issues as a Middlebury Fellow in Environmental Journalism. She lives in Tennessee and edits The Mountain Defender, a newspaper about mountaintop removal coal mining and other environmental topics throughout Appalachia.

Holly Haworth
Holly Haworth is a recipient of the Middlebury Fellowship in Environmental Journalism and a certified Southern Appalachian Naturalist. She was the Summer 2015 Artist-in-Residence at Guadalupe Mountains National Park. Her work appears at Orion and the Oxford American.

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