The Environmental Journal of Southern Appalachia

Still no reckoning for coal-ash polluters

Written by Robert Zullo

1024px Kingston plant spill swanpond tn2A TVA ash pond at Watts Bar ruptured with disastrous consequences in December 2008.  Wikipedia 

Report contends coal plant operators are shirking responsibilities on ash cleanup

This story was originally published by Tennessee Lookout

NASHVILLE — In the wake of major coal ash spills from power plant containment ponds in Tennessee and into the Dan River along the North Carolina and Virginia border, the federal Environmental Protection Agency in 2015 laid out the first federal rules for managing the ash, one of the nation’s largest waste streams, and the toxins it contains.  

But more than seven years later, few utilities and other owners responsible for the often unlined pits where billions of tons of ash leach heavy metals and other toxins into groundwater are planning comprehensive cleanups, per a report released this month by a pair of environmental groups. 

“This report serves as a warning bell for the need to change course to ensure that the federal rule actually restores coal ash-contaminated groundwater, closes all unlined and leaking coal ash ponds and prevents future water contamination,” the report by the Environmental Integrity Project and Earthjustice says. “Progress to clean up contaminated groundwater and safely close dangerous coal ash ponds is dismal. Industry data reveal ongoing groundwater contamination and widespread violations of the federal rule.”

The report contains information on groundwater contamination, including levels of arsenic, cobalt, lithium, thallium, selenium, boron, lead and other toxins, at nearly 300 coal plant sites in 43 states and ranks the 10 top most contaminated sites, which it says are in Nevada, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Tennessee, Wyoming, Mississippi and Texas, based on sampling data released by the owners of the sites. Many are in low-income communities and communities of color and almost all of them (91 percent) are contaminating the groundwater, the report contends.

“Quite simply, most coal plants are violating the law that requires toxic waste cleanup,” said Lisa Evans, a senior attorney with Earthjustice, during a Thursday media call. “Coal plants are polluting the nation’s water illegally and getting away with it.” 

Abel Russ, a senior attorney with the Environmental Integrity Project, said the EPA’s 2015 regulations, called the Disposal of Coal Combustion Residuals from Electric Utilities rule, have done a decent job of laying out the scope of the problem at coal ash sites across the country. 

“But of course the rule is also meant to do something about the problem and stimulate cleanup and corrective action and we’re not seeing that as much as we should be seeing,” Russ said.

Enforcement lagged during the Trump administration, and both organizations have been pushing the EPA to take more action to prod plant owners to clean up contamination, Russ and Evans said.

“This rule was promulgated in 2015 followed by four years of the Trump administration where the EPA did nothing but try to remove the coal ash rule. They did not try to enforce it, there were no pronouncements on what the rule meant. And so in January of this year … EPA has started to enforce the rule. But it is industry’s argument that they’re doing it in some new or novel way, which is total nonsense.” 

An EPA spokeswoman said the agency would review the report but did not answer specific questions about enforcement of the 2015 rule. Bill Norton, a spokesman for Duke Energy, which has coal ash units at 20 different facilities in five states, said the company is “making great progress” on closing coal ash ponds.

“We are pursuing corrective action at each site to address any groundwater contamination, and our work won’t be done until it is fully addressed,” he said. “As that work proceeds, it is critical to note that drinking and recreational water supplies remain safe from ash impacts.”

He said the Environmental Integrity Project’s news release on the report — which lists the company’s Allen Steam Station in Belmont, N.C., as one of the 10 worst coal ash contamination sites in the country and claims Duke doesn’t plan to treat groundwater — isn’t accurate. 

“We are actively treating the groundwater at Allen and it has already begun to improve. We are also building new lined landfills and are excavating both ash basins and the landfill under approved closure plans that NCDEQ confirmed are ‘protective of public health and the environment,’” Norton said.

He also called the report’s methodology flawed because the high cobalt levels at Allen are “deep within the interior” of the site and groundwater flows away from neighbors. 

“Separate private well testing by state regulators in North Carolina did not observe elevated levels of cobalt or any other ash impacts in neighbors’ well water near the Allen plant, and regular surface water sampling shows Lake Wylie continues to remain safe from coal ash impacts,” he said. 

Attempts to reach GenOn, which operates two facilities, one in Maryland and one in Pennsylvania, that were listed among the 10 most contaminated in the country, for comment were unsuccessful. 

In a statement, Tennessee Valley Authority spokesman Scott Brooks said, “TVA is an industry leader in the safe, secure management of coal ash, implementing best practices years before they were required by the 2015 federal coal ash rule and pioneering new technology to ensure our coal ash sites are safe. For example, six years before the federal coal ash rule was enacted, TVA committed to eliminating wet handling of coal ash at all our facilities.  The conversion from wet to dry handling is completed.”

Brooks added that decisions regarding the closure and long-term storage and management of coal ash sites are based on the unique characteristics of each site and that TVA is under a commissioner’s order to conduct a thorough environmental study of the sites to help determine the closure method.

‘Common tricks’

Local activists said coal ash pollution has plagued their communities for years. 

“This report chronicles the bad faith of big coal in America that has created public and environmental health problems that will take generations to clean up in some cases,” said Fred Tutman, the Patuxent Riverkeeper, who has fought to force GenOn to clean up pollution from its coal ash landfill in Brandywine, about 24 miles southeast of Washington in Maryland. “All in pursuit of ill-gotten profits while they seek to evade sustainability or accountability. It’s an ugly story and people need to take heed.”

Tim Maloney, senior policy director for the Hoosier Environmental Council, said during a news conference that coal ash has contaminated drinking water wells in four Indiana communities, including the town of Pines, a Superfund site, and has rendered groundwater unusable at 10 other sites across the state. 

 “Despite knowing for years about the contamination caused by their coal ash, at most of our 17 power plant sites where toxic metals are leaking from ash dumps, the power companies still don’t know the full extent of the contamination or have specific plans to clean up these dumps,” Maloney said.

To see the full list of Tennessee Valley Authority coal ash sites in Tennessee, see For a list of Tennessee power plants with pollutants exceeding safe levels, click here. 

 “Our indigenous communities deserve a livable future without a contaminated landscape” said Robyn Jackson, interim executive director of Diné C.A.R.E.Arizona, which is pushing for clean up at the Four Corners Power Plant, which is on Navajo Nation land in Fruitland, New Mexico, and has an estimated 89 million tons of coal ash that has been disposed of on site or in an adjacent mine. 

“Utility owners need to comply with the coal ash rule and all regulating agencies like EPA need to protect our communities and sacred lands,” Jackson said. “We advocate for the strongest possible clean-up standards at the Four Corners Power Plant so that our lands are not left with a Super Fund site that is neglected.” 

The report also says utilities and ash dump owners are obfuscating actual levels of pollution and exploiting loopholes to avoid cleanup costs. 

“To save money and avoid liability, coal plant owners ignore critical requirements and employ common tricks to avoid mandatory cleanup requirements,” the report says.

For instance, it’s up to coal plant operators to make the initial determination as to which ash pits are subject to the rule, since plants that operated for decades often have multiple ash disposal areas, some that may not have accepted new waste for years. 

As an example, Duke Energy long considered two old coal ponds at the Gallagher Generating Station in New Albany, Indiana, that had been drained and covered with soil and grass as exempt from the rule even though the ash was “sitting in approximately 20 feet of groundwater,” the EPA wrote to the company in June. 

There are 200 unlined coal ash impoundments in 30 states that plan to close without removing any ash, even though the waste is within five feet of groundwater, creating the potential for heavy metals to continue leaching out for years, the report says. 

Plant owners are also rigging groundwater data to cover up the degree of groundwater contamination, the report contends. It cites an example of a Florida facility in which a so-called “background” monitoring well — designed to establish baseline levels of water contaminants before it comes into contact with coal ash — was designated as upgradient of the ash ponds even though it was actually downgradient. The effect is to make it seem as if the ash isn’t contributing significant contamination to the groundwater. 

“When plant owners illegally install ‘background’ wells that are already contaminated by coal ash, they can avoid cleanup requirements. Cleanups are triggered, according to the rule, when downgradient wells (wells placed to detect water passing the boundary of a landfill or pond) show a statistically significant increase in coal ash contaminants when compared to wells reflecting the original condition of the groundwater,” the report says. 

Even when the upgradient wells are properly designated, sometimes coal ash unit owners don’t compare those background wells with the monitoring wells designed to identify contamination. 

“Instead of comparing downgradient wells to upgradient wells, they analyze the data for each well in isolation,” the report says. “This does not work at most coal plants because the groundwater is already contaminated.” 

More than 100 coal ash dumps regulated by the rule use that technique, called “intrawell analysis.”

And when they embark on cleanup efforts, ash dump operators fail to restore groundwater quality, drag their feet by failing to choose a solution or opt for “monitored natural attenuation” to address contamination, even though that essentially means groundwater monitoring without a clean up plan, the report says. 

The groups say state and federal regulators should push coal plant owners to remove ash from pits and place it in sealed landfills away from surface and groundwater, which can be pumped up and treated. The report calls for more monitoring wells, more testing of nearby surface water and private drinking water wells, correct analysis of groundwater data and prompt clean-up action, among other recommendations. It also calls on the EPA to step up enforcement and revise the rule itself so that it no longer exempts older coal ash units.  

“This is not a problem that can’t be solved,” Evans said. “The problem is the intransigence of the industry in not being willing to solve the problem.“

Rate this item
(1 Vote)

Related items

  • Water and waste on TVA agenda as utility plans Bull Run shutdown
    in News

    TVA’s Bull Run Fossil Plant — then and nowBull Run Fossil Plant in Claxton, Tennessee, was originally commissioned 55 years ago but TVA is now soliciting public input on the best way to shut down operations. Tennessee Valley Authority

    TVA solicits public input following release of environmental assessment for Bull Run Fossil Plant decommission

    CLAXTON — Tennessee Valley Authority plans to close its Bull Run Fossil Plant (BRF) in Anderson County, but it’s still looking for public input on what comes next.

    “As a large, inflexible coal unit with medium operating costs and a high forced outage rate, BRF does not fit current and likely future portfolio needs,” the federal utility said in a draft Environmental Assessment.

    TVA is looking at three different options for the future of the structures still standing on the site by the Clinch River near Oak Ridge: taking down all structures; taking down some of them; or leaving everything standing. A recent report lays out the environmental consequences of each of these actions. The report, in draft form, is against that third choice, listing it as only an option for the sake of comparison.

    “If the facility is left in the “as-is” condition, it likely would present a higher risk than Alternatives A or B for the potential to contaminate soil and groundwater as systems and structures degrade. As such, this alternative is not a reasonable alternative,” the draft states.

    TVA stated its considering removing “all or most of the buildings and structures” on a 250-acre area. After closing the plant, but before any demolitions, TVA will begin by removing components that may be used at other TVA sites, draining of oil and fluids from equipment, taking ash out of the boilers, removing information technology assets, removing plant records and other tasks.

    The Bull Run Environmental Assessment is 170 pages long and available for public review. It doesn’t directly tackle the coal ash storage conundrum that has grabbed the attention of politicians, nearby residents and environmental activists, because that issue involves separate regulations. 

  • Ahead of retiring Bull Run Fossil Plant, TVA faces questions about the site’s toxicity
    in News

    bull run 107 hero0196f525 b2ce 46c9 88ad 0f2337a86726

    CLAXTON  Even though TVA is about to retire Bull Run Fossil Plant, water pollution issues related to it are still up for debate.

    A water discharge permit hearing took place Thursday, Jan. 12 at the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation building, 761 Emory Valley Road in Oak Ridge. 

    If you missed the meeting, you can still provide comments by email to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. through Thursday, Jan. 26

    The permit would, if approved, allow releases of “cooling water, process wastewater and storm water runoff” from Bull Run Fossil Plant into the Clinch River and operation of a cooling water intake system. Environmental groups have concerns. 

    Tennessee Valley Authority plans to retire Bull Run Fossil plant by 2023. Over several years and at meetings, both connected to TVA and organized by activist groups, citizens have voiced concerns about water quality issues due to the continued coal ash waste TVA stores on the site. In advance of this meeting, representatives of the Sierra Club, Southern Environmental Law Center, Appalachian Voices, Statewide Coalition for Community eMpowerment and Center for Biological Diversity all signed a letter asking for TDEC to set standards for water pollution from coal ash based on available technology.

    This story will be updated.

  • ‘I remember the marks in his ankle:’ Paddlers push for trotline regulations on Tennessee waterways
    in News

    Silver anchor and thin fishing line tied to a branch for an underwater trotlineSilver weight and thin fishing line tied to a branch for an underwater trotline.  Getty Images via Tennessee Lookout

    Traditional Tennessee trot lines pose a fatal collision with river recreation

    This story was originally published by Tennessee Lookout.

    NASHVILLE Brandon Archer was canoeing down the Buffalo River with friends over Labor Day weekend three years ago when he jumped out for a swim and drowned.

    Archer had become entangled in a trotline, an unmanned fishing line studded with hooks that stretched across the river. The MTSU football player died a day shy of his 22nd birthday.

    “When they found him he was under 10 feet of water and they found trotline wrapped around his ankle,” Courtney Archer, Brandon’s mother, told members of the Tennessee Fish and Wildlife Commission this month. “When I saw my son I remember the marks in his ankle from the trotline that was there.”

  • Every TVA coal-fired plant in Tennessee is leaking dangerous contaminants at unsafe levels, report concludes
    in News

    TVA‘s Cumberland power plantThe Tennessee Valley Authority’s Cumberland Fossil Plant in Stewart County, Tennessee is leaking boron at 22 times safe levels, as well as unsafe levels of arsenic, cobalt, lithium and molybdenum, according to a recent report prepared by environmental groups using TVA’s own data. Tennessee Valley Authority

    Report: TVA’s Allen Fossil Plant in Memphis ranks No. 10 in most contaminated U.S. sites

    This story was originally published by Tennessee Lookout.

    The Tennessee Valley Authority’s coal ash dumps in Memphis rank among the worst in the nation for contamination of groundwater with cancer-causing toxins, according to a new report that relied on the power provider’s own records.

    TVA’s coal ash dumps at the now-defunct Allen Fossil Plant rank as the 10th worst contaminated sites in the country in a report released earlier this month that examined groundwater monitoring data from coal-fired plant operators, including TVA.

    TVA’s own monitoring data shows its Memphis dumps are leaking arsenic at levels nearly 300 times safe drinking water limits. Unsafe levels of boron, lead and molybdenum are also being recorded there.

    The report, prepared and published by the Environmental Integrity Project (EIP) and Earthjustice, shows that coal ash dumps at every TVA coal-fired facility across Tennessee are leaking dangerous contaminants at unsafe levels, including arsenic, cobalt, lithium, molybedenum, boron, lead and sulfate, into groundwater.

  • Enviros to TVA: Retire the fossil-fuel pacifier
    in News

    Cumberland FPTVA’s Cumberland Fossil Plant near Clarksville is the subject of a suit filed by environmental groups, including Appalachian Voices and Southern Environmental Law Center.  Tennessee Valley Authority

    SELC, others file suit in hopes of dissuading TVA from future fossil options

    This story was originally published by Tennessee Lookout.

    CLARKSVILLE — On behalf of the Tennessee Chapter of the Sierra Club and Appalachian Voices, the Southern Environmental Law Center asked TVA to prepare a supplemental environmental statement to address concerns with TVA’s draft environmental impact statement, which details the agency’s plans to retire the Cumberland Fossil Plant.

    The Cumberland Fossil Plant, about 22 miles southwest of Clarksville, is TVA’s largest coal-fired power station and was built between 1968 and 1973. TVA plans to retire each unit of the two-unit, coal-fired steam-generation plant separately: one unit no later than 2030, and the second unit no later than 2033. But the plant will need to be replaced, and TVA is currently considering three alternatives to fossil fuel, including natural gas and solar energy, according to its draft EIS.

    (Tennessee Valley Authority already plans to close down the Knoxville-area Bull Run fossil plant in Claxton next year).

  • Public comment: Environmental group leaders say TVA makes input difficult
    in News

    Handout from TVA Listening Session Aug. 30 2022Scott Banbury with the Tennessee Chapter of the Sierra Club said a handout provided at TVA’s Aug. 30 listening session stated recordings of the meeting were not allowed; a TVA spokesperson said recordings are, in fact, allowed. Flyer provided by Scott Banbury

    Is TVA trying to gag its critics?

    This story was originally published by Tennessee Lookout.

    KNOXVILLE — While the Tennessee Valley Authority, a utility company that provides power to millions in Tennessee and other states, allows for public input into decisions, the process isn’t simple or transparent, say some regular attendees.

    Take, for instance, a recent public listening session: representatives of the Tennessee Chapter of the Sierra Club say they were told they could not record the session despite a spokesman for TVA saying the opposite.

    According to TVA spokesperson Scott Brooks, attendees are always allowed to record public meetings, provided they don’t cause a disturbance, but minutes before the session, members of the Tennessee chapter of the Sierra Club were prohibited from doing so.

  • Activists urge TVA to take advantage of historic US climate bill for energy-efficiency improvements
    in News

    TVA 1 2048x1365A hopper car on a train filled with coal to be delivered to a TVA coal-fired plant. John Partipilo/Tennessee Lookout

    Climate bill designates TVA as a potential recipient of clean energy investments and loans

    This story was originally published by Tennessee Lookout.

    KNOXVILLE  Clean-energy advocates are urging the Tennessee Valley Authority to use funds provided through the Inflation Reduction Act to deliver environmentally friendly energy to Tennessee customers. 

    The massive bill Congress passed Friday includes $370 billion for clean energy investments and listed TVA as an entity that is eligible to take advantage of clean energy credits and loans to significantly reduce the cost of energy-efficient infrastructure. 

    On Aug. 12, the Clean Up TVA Coalition, including the Sierra Club, the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy and Appalachian Voices, urged TVA to take advantage of the legislation and make funds available to its affiliated local power companies, which can then offer energy-efficient options for customers.

  • Dems pass huge climate bill assailed by some as another fossil energy sop
    in News

    5 July 2022 US Significant Climate Events Map

    Record-setting bill will fund extensive efforts to address climate change, but the sausage-making deal is decried by some as a ‘suicide pact’

    This story was originally published by Tennessee Lookout.

    WASHINGTON — The U.S. Senate, along party lines, passed a sweeping energy, health care, climate and tax package Sunday afternoon, following an overnight marathon of votes that resulted in just a handful of notable changes to the legislation.

    The 755-page bill was passed after Vice President Kamala Harris broke a 50-50 tie in the evenly divided Senate. It now heads to the House, where Democratic leaders have announced they will take it up on Friday.

    At last, we have arrived,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said.  Democratic senators broke out into applause as Harris announced passage of the bill, expected to total more than $700 billion.

    Schumer, a New York Democrat, said he dedicated the measure to young Americans who have pushed and protested for the Senate to take action on climate change. 

  • SACE released its annual utility decarbonization tracking report, and it’s not pretty
    in News

    methane leaksBloomberg reports that methane leaks from the natural gas sector may be far worse than estimated by the EPA. While replacing coal-fired power plants with natural gas ones reduces air pollution it may not help at all with climate change because methane is 30 times more effective as a greenhouse gas than CO2.  Image source: Kayrros SAS

    Report: Many utilities are not reducing carbon emissions despite public assurances to the contrary

    KNOXVILLE — Global greenhouse gas emissions must peak by 2025 and experience rapid and deep reductions to avoid a potentially catastrophic future, according to a new analysis by air-quality and climate advocates. Emissions must reach net zero by the early 2050s to limit warming to 1.5 degrees (C) in order to avoid the worst impacts of the climate crisis.

    Many utilities and municipalities have acknowledged this dynamic, but the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy s fourth annual “Tracking Decarbonization in the Southeast" report highlights that current utility resource plans are not in line with this overarching target. Obstacles to getting utilities on track that are discussed in our report include: increasing reliance on fossil gas, underutilizing energy efficiency, and placing limitations on popular technologies such as rooftop solar. There’s still a lot of work to do before any Southeast utility is on track to decarbonize.

  • Fossil-fuel pipeline in your front yard, anyone? Senate passes bill blocking local power over pipeline placement
    in News

    pipelineThis pumping station in Dickson County was the site of a 1992 gas line rupture. John Partipilo/Tennessee Lookout

    Bill eliminating local oversight of fossil-fuel infrastructure passes state Senate at behest of fuel companies, now on to House

    This story was originally published by Tennessee Lookout.

    UPDATE: The state House approved the bill March 29 with moderating amendments sought by local governments and environmental and social justice advocates.

    NASHVILLE — The Tennessee Senate passed a controversial pipeline preemption bill on Thursday in spite of concerns about the effect oil and gas pipelines could have on personal property and drinking water.

    Before passage, Sen. Ken Yager, R-Kingston, sponsor of SB2077, amended the bill to allow for wellhead protections and to align with its House counterpart. Critics still contended that with local governments lacking the ability to regulate fossil fuel infrastructure, communities could do little to protect themselves from unwanted pipelines.