Environmental activists are trying to stop the Tennessee Valley Authority from starting a daily 1 million gallon discharge of water that contains mercury, selenium and other pollutants into the same river where coal ash was spilled at its Kingston Plant.
Representatives of Earthjustice and other groups told reporters Thursday they are challenging a Clean Water Act permit issued by the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation. They said technology is available to avoid the potentially toxic discharges.
The discharges into the Clinch River stem from new smokestack scrubbers that reduce air emissions at the plant where TVA is still engaged in a $1 billion ash cleanup from a December spill.
The activists asked the Tennessee Water Quality Control Board in a filing Thursday to reverse TDEC's Oct. 16 approval of the discharge permit.
TDEC spokeswoman Meg Lockhart said she was seeking a comment from agency officials.
TVA said in a statement released by spokeswoman Barbara Martocci that although "metals are present in the discharged water, state and federal agencies have determined that there is no reasonable potential for these materials to cause an exceedance of any water quality criteria."
Lisa Widawsky, an attorney for Environmental Integrity Project in Washington, D.C., said in a statement that the state agency ignored its responsibility to enforce the Clean Water Act when it approved "new discharges of toxic heavy metals, to the tune of 1 million gallons a day, into the same river devastated by the Kingston coal ash spill."
Martocci said the 1 million gallons is a measure of the amount of water that would contain approved levels of pollutants. She said the water discharges are scheduled to start in a few weeks.
Abigail Dillen, an attorney for Earthjustice in Washington, D.C., said Tennessee is allowing the pollutant dumping at a time when the Environmental Protection Agency is preparing new rules for discharges at plants like Kingston where scrubbers are being installed to reduce air emissions.
Dillen said TDEC is not requiring pollution controls that many other utilities across the United States have started using.
"We believe it is plainly illegal under the Clean Water Act," she said.
Widawsky said more than a third of all power plants in the U.S. have eliminated toxic discharges and "TDEC must require the same at Kingston."
Kingston's new $500 million scrubber complex is to reduce air emissions of sulfur dioxide, a greenhouse gas produced by burning fossil fuels like coal. A second scrubber will go into operation in April.
TVA has spent around $6 billion since the late 1970s reducing emissions of sulfur dioxide, particulates and smog-forming nitrogen oxide. The utility still faces a December 2013 deadline to do more. A federal judge has ruled in a lawsuit brought by the state of North Carolina that TVA must significantly reduce pollution from four coal-fired power plants affecting North Carolina's air quality.
The nine-boiler, 1,700-megawatt Kingston plant is one of the four cited plants.
Knoxville-based TVA serves nearly 9 million consumers in Tennessee and parts of Kentucky, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia.