Environmental groups ready to sue over coal ash chemical seepage at Gallatin Fossil Plant

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NASHVILLE, Tennessee — Environmental groups say the coal ash stored at a Gallatin plant is illegally seeping toxic chemicals into the Cumberland River, a drinking water source for millions.

On Monday afternoon, the groups sent a 60-day notice of intent to sue to the Tennessee Valley Authority. The utility operates the 1950s-era Gallatin Fossil Plant, about 45 minutes northeast of Nashville.

Because of Clean Air Act violations, TVA recently had to choose whether to close the plant, retrofit it with scrubbers, or convert it to use a different fuel. The utility decided in August 2012, to add scrubbers and continue burning coal.

The notice was sent to TVA by the Southern Environmental Law Center, which is representing the Tennessee Scenic Rivers Association and the Tennessee Clean Water Network. The groups accuse TVA of violating the Clean Water Act at the Gallatin plant by illegally discharging a host of chemicals that include arsenic, cadmium, strontium and mercury.

The discharges are coming from leaky unlined coal ash storage ponds next to the Cumberland River, the letter says. TVA's own map shows over 100 sinkholes on the property and its reports to the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation identify at least ten seeps it is monitoring for discharges, the letter says.

TVA issued a statement on Monday saying that it is working on fixing the problem.

The utility is "aggressively moving forward with plans to convert from wet ash storage to dry storage at Gallatin," the statement reads. "We are in the process of constructing a new dry storage landfill, which will be operational in 2016. ...Existing ash ponds will then be dried out, covered and closed."

The Clean Water Act allows citizens to sue over violations when they believe the appropriate authorities are not enforcing the regulations. In this case, the environmental groups say TDEC knows the ash ponds are leaking but has declined to take action.

They point to a TVA Office of Inspector General report that says TDEC notified TVA in February 2009 that the Gallatin plant was violating groundwater protection standards. According to the letter, "To date TVA has taken no actions to clean up this contaminated groundwater, nor has TDEC taken any enforcement action against TVA."

TVA says it is working with TDEC on its plan to convert to dry storage. TDEC did not immediately have a comment but referred reporters to the TVA statement.

As examples of how badly things can go wrong with coal ash storage, the letter points to a 2008 coal ash spill at TVA's Kingston Fossil Plant and a 2014 spill at a Duke Energy plant near Eden, North Carolina. At Kingston, a ruptured dike dumped more than 5 million cubic yards of ash sludge into Emory and Clinch rivers and onto surrounding properties. The spill in North Carolina coated 70 miles of the Dan River with gray sludge. And the letter notes that in 2013 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found that some of the dams at the Gallatin plant were in only "fair" condition and in need of improvement.

Southern Environmental Law Center attorney Anne Davis said the 60-day notice letter gives TVA and TDEC a chance to fix the problems before the environmental groups sue. Davis said similar issues in other states have been fixed by moving coal ash to a lined landfill, away from the water.

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