Victory for Clean Water and Communities in Coal Ash Lawsuit Against TVA

Judge Orders TVA to Excavate and Move Its Coal Ash from Leaking, Unlined Pit

By Beth Alexander and Claudine McElwain, Southern Environmental Law Center

On August 4, 2017, a Federal Court in Nashville Tennessee ruled against Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) for coal ash pollution at its Gallatin Fossil Plant and ordered it to excavate and move its coal ash from a leaking, unlined pit to an appropriate safe lined site.  The ruling came in favor of plaintiffs, Tennessee Scenic Rivers Association, represented by the Southern Environmental Law Center, and co-plaintiff Tennessee Clean Water Network.

Said Southern Environmental Law Center Senior Attorney Beth Alexander:

“This is a huge victory for the people of Tennessee and for all those fighting to ensure that we have clean water in our state and in our country. Like at Kingston, it was unfortunately necessary to take TVA to court to force it to take responsibility for its coal ash pollution. The good news is that TVA will be required to do the right thing again, this time at Gallatin.”

Said Donnie Safer a board member of the Tennessee Clean Water Network:

“The people of Tennessee deserve this win and deserve clean water.  This case represents what it means to be stewards of our land and water and the importance of the citizen’s voice. We are grateful to all those who fight on behalf of clean water in Tennessee and will continue to work on behalf of the people of Tennessee to ensure safe and clean water for all who rely on and enjoy the beautiful rivers and streams of Tennessee.”

Evidence at trial documented the porous nature of the ground, known as karst terrain, underneath the Gallatin coal ash, where TVA proposed to cap the coal ash in place permanently.  In the order the court noted,

“It is difficult to imagine why anyone would choose to build an unlined ash waste pond in karst terrain immediately adjacent to a river. While the decision to build the Ash Pond Complex is in the past, the consequences of that decision continue today, and it now falls on the Court to address them. The way to do so is not to cover over those decades-old mistakes, but to pull them up by their roots. TVA, as the entity responsible for the ponds, must be the entity to do so.”

The judge in his order concluded that removal of the coal ash was the only effective remedy proven in the case and “giving the Court’s blessing to closure in place at this juncture would amount to nothing less than rolling the dice.”

Said Tennessee Clean Water Network’s Executive Director Renée Victoria Hoyos:

“We’re pleased with the court’s decision today regarding the disposal of coal ash waste from the Gallatin Fossil Plant. This is a powerful ruling because it demonstrates TVA is being held accountable for legacy ash contamination.  We appreciate the court pointing out this is a minimum obligation. We hope TVA will comply with today’s court ruling and fulfill its obligation to protecting water quality for Tennesseans.”

Until this Clean Water Act trial there was no public record revealing the fact that billions of gallons of coal ash waste have continuously contaminated groundwater and tainted the river since at least the 1970s. The TVA documents revealed ongoing efforts to plug chronic sinkholes and seeps that have plagued the coal ash impoundment. The entire facility sits on what geologists said was “karst” topography, porous limestone known for sinkholes, caverns, and underground streams. The documents also countered TVA’s assertions that leaks were quickly sealed and that the coal ash compound is not leaking.

The Court weighed in on TVA’s assurances that closure in place would stop contamination from coal ash noting, “The evidence before the Court, however, offers no such assurances – and in fact offers ample reason to doubt that closure in place can actually put an end to the inadvertent discharges that have plagued the Gallatin Plant for the entirety of its existence.”

The trial focused on the Gallatin Fossil Plant, but the similar conditions are present at many of TVA’s coal ash impoundments in Tennessee, and others 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 communities, and to the environment.

The Southern Environmental Law Center is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. With nine offices across the region (Charlottesville VA; Chapel Hill NC; Atlanta GA; Charleston SC; Washington DC; Birmingham AL; Nashville TN; Asheville NC; and Richmond VA), SELC is widely recognized as the Southeast’s foremost environmental organization and regional leader. SELC works on a full range of environmental issues to protect the South’s natural resources and the health and well-being of all the people in our region. See www.SouthernEnvironment.org.

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