Federal utility, environmental groups close pollution trial

AP News
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Posted: Feb 02, 2017 7:19 PM

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The Tennessee Valley Authority finished a four-day trial Thursday in which environmental groups accuse the utility's power plant outside Nashville, Tennessee, of illegally polluting the Cumberland River with coal ash.

Still, a decision in the case may not come for months.

The Tennessee Clean Water Network and the Tennessee Scenic Rivers Association claim coal ash ponds from TVA's Gallatin coal-fired power plant are seeping pollution into the Cumberland River, violating the Clean Water Act and permits.

TVA attorneys wrapped up their defense Thursday in Nashville federal court with testimony that it could cost roughly $2 billion to excavate and truck out the coal ash stored at the federal utility's coal-fired power plant in Gallatin, about 40 miles from Nashville. That's compared with $230 million to keep the waste on site and cap it, testified John Kammeyer, TVA vice president for civil projects.

Environmental groups want the waste at the 1950s-era Gallatin Fossil Plant dug up and taken elsewhere. TVA has said it's cheaper and may be safer and more environmentally friendly to keep it where it is, although the utility says it has not made a decision yet.

U.S. District Judge Waverly Crenshaw in Nashville set a mid-April deadline for more court filings, putting any decision in the case at least a few months out. In one of the few comments showing his perspective, Crenshaw said Wednesday that the environmental groups need to cite more specific evidence in later filings.

The trial follows a related 2015 state lawsuit by Tennessee environmental officials against the nation's largest public utility, which powers 9 million customers in parts of seven Southern states. The environmental groups don't think the state required sufficient changes from TVA at the plant to safeguard against contamination of the Cumberland River. An environmental investigation related to the state case is ongoing.

Environmental groups on Thursday drew testimony from state environmental geologist James Clark, who said he was told at a recent TVA meeting that multiple testing wells drilled into the coal ash pits showed the groundwater contacted the ash, and some wells registered concentrations of arsenic.

They also contend a coal ash pond that has been sitting unused for decades has been leaking toxic coal ash through sinkholes into the river in violation of the Clean Water Act. They say the coal ash impoundment let 27 billion gallons of coal ash seep from sinkholes into groundwater and the river from 1970 to 1978, and leaks continue.

"It's unfortunate that we had to go to these lengths to enforce the Clean Water Act," said Beth Alexander, an attorney for Southern Environmental Law Center representing one of the groups. "We expect that TVA and other governmental entities will be more protective of the environment without the citizens having to call them into court."

TVA attorneys acknowledged the past pollution problems, but said the Gallatin plant is doing nothing illegal and environmental groups provided no proof otherwise.

"I think TVA maintains that we are following state and federal regulations, including our permit at Gallatin," TVA spokesman Scott Brooks said. "We think our witnesses over the last two days have shown our diligence and our intent to do the right thing at Gallatin."

TVA says it's investing billions of dollars in safer ways to store coal ash and other waste from burning coal across its operations.

That includes converting all of its wet coal ash storage to dry storage, a decision made after a 2008 coal ash disaster at TVA's Kingston Fossil Plant in Tennessee. More than 5 million cubic yards of sludge from the plant spilled into the Emory and Clinch rivers that year, destroying homes in a nearby waterfront community.