Sharon Todd was one of more than 100 people, most of them older adults, packed into a small, bright Claxton, Tennessee, courtroom on a rainy night in mid- February. She and her neighbors spent weeks organizing — knocking on doors, making phone calls, blitzing social media — to unite Anderson County in opposition of the Tennessee Valley Authority’s proposed 60-acre coal ash landfill in their community.
Todd wanted to make sure county officials heard concerns about public health and environmental risks of coal ash, the byproduct of burning coal for electricity that contains radioactive materials and heavy metals known to cause birth defects, cancer, and chronic heart and lung diseases. “We don’t have to sit back and accept what [TVA] want[s] to do,” said Todd, who is near retirement. “We can have some input.”
The landfill, quietly proposed in 2015, was originally going to store new coal ash for the TVA’s 58-year-old Bull Run Fossil Plant. Then, last summer, TVA announced it would close the plant by 2023. But the utility didn’t have plans to clean up the site’s unlined clay coal ash pit three miles west of town, which borders the Clinch River, a public drinking water source. Their solution was to cap the 5 million tons of coal ash in place.
The pit is partially submerged in groundwater, and the TVA’s 2019 monitoring data shows arsenic, a known carcinogen, is already leaking from at least two groundwater wells up to eight times above federal drinking water standards. The TVA insists drinking water is safe in Claxton and in downstream communities like Oak Ridge and West Knoxville. Residents aren’t convinced — and they’re leery of the TVA’s new plans to approve a permit for the lined landfill near their homes, which could be a future home for millions of tons of contaminated waste.
Out of 737 coal ash sites in the U.S. and Puerto Rico, almost all are in unlined ponds and are polluting groundwater above safe drinking water standards, according to utility data gathered by environmental group EarthJustice. The Southeast is home to nearly half of those sites. As utilities close uneconomical, aging coal-fired power plants at a near-record pace — despite the Trump administration’s efforts to prop up the industry and loosen regulations on coal ash disposal — one of the most pressing questions for communities is if, and how, utilities will clean up the waste.
The Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) reports that utilities in five Southern states — South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia, Virginia, and Tennessee — have been ordered to or are voluntarily moving about 70 percent of unlined coal ash pits to lined storage. The TVA has only reached cleanup agreements at two of its sites, in Memphis and Nashville, though it’s under a 2015 order by the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC) to investigate contamination at eight facilities. Some residents, lawyers, and community organizers say the controversy over Bull Run coal ash shows the TVA is not taking enough responsibility for its waste, or being transparent with residents.
“The TVA is lagging behind the trend,” said Frank Holleman, SELC’s lead attorney on coal ash. “They are falling short of what is now accepted industry standard for how to deal with these old unlined pits.”
Todd, who can see Bull Run’s smoke stacks from her driveway, said no one worried about coal ash until a dyke failed at the TVA’s Kingston plant 35 miles away in 2008, releasing over a billion gallons of ash in the Clinch River and surrounding communities. At least 47 cleanup workers have died and hundreds more are sick. A Knoxville News Sentinel investigation revealed TVA knew for decades that coal ash was toxic, and a federal jury ruled for a settlement in favor of the workers last year. The TVA and its contractor deny the claims.
Nearly six years after the spill, the Environmental Protection Agency standardized coal ash disposal, requiring liners in all new storage sites and yearly groundwater monitoring reports. The rule, however, was not strict enough for many environmental groups; for instance, coal ash isn’t classified as a hazardous waste. The Trump administration’s EPA has proposed relaxing rules even more by delaying the deadline for utilities to move coal ash from unlined pits and rolling back requirements for liners used to keep contaminants from leaking into groundwater. Some states have taken action in lieu of action by the federal government and utilities: Last year, Virginia lawmakers reached an agreement requiring Dominion Energy to excavate 28 million tons of coal ash at four facilities; in January, North Carolina regulators and Duke Energy reached a settlement to excavate 80 million tons at six sites, though Duke wants ratepayers to cover the costs.
TVA officials have been “dragging their feet” on the decision to close coal ash ponds, said Amanda Garcia, an SELC lawyer who worked on the Nashville and Memphis settlements. “I think it’s particularly galling given that they are the reason that EPA decided to regulate coal ash in the first place,” she said. The longer TVA waits, the higher the chance federal rollbacks could be put in place before it decides on long-term plans.
Scott Brooks, public relations manager for the TVA, said those plans hinge on an environmental impact statement that will be completed in 2021. The utility has been working on the assessment for five years. Brooks, who asked “for patience” from the community, said the utility wants the landfill, which is farther away from the river, approved in case they need it to store ash from the unlined pit. The cleanup will cost billions, but the TVA has said it will try to keep electricity rates stable.
According to Brooks, the TVA’s new CEO is working to ensure the utility does a better job communicating by hosting open houses with communities, explaining their plans in local newspapers, and simplifying access to EPA-required water monitoring data online — though he said they “obviously” have more work to do.
The recent hearings, and the community action over the five years since the TVA began its environmental impact statement, make it clear that even if residents support the TVA, they also want more information, and input, on future plans. Some residents think it’s too dangerous to move, and worry the TVA could mishandle cleanup like it did with Kingston; others want it stored in a lined landfill far away from people.
Anderson County Commissioner Catherine Denenberg said the local government plans to keep up the pressure campaign. “I hope that TVA and TDEC took away from this that we mean business,” Denenberg said. “I really think this is one of the biggest issues Anderson County has to consider and work on for the next many years.” Anderson’s County’s state senator and Republican Lt. Governor, Randy McNally, also supports the TVA removing coal ash due to concerns over water contamination. (McNally did not respond to Southerly’s requests for comment.)
County officials have reached out to groups involved in North Carolina’s settlement with Duke, and considering whether zoning laws could prevent the landfill. After a worrisome particulate dust coated cars and homes around Bull Run last year, the county is also looking into conducting their own water tests and health studies. Nearly everyone in Todd’s area knows someone with cancer, which they suspect could be related to pollution. EPA data shows living near coal ash sites is linked to an increased risk of cancer. Other communities near coal ash facilities in North Carolina and Georgia with similar concerns are pushing states for testing.
Encouraged by the support of her county leaders, Todd plans to keep organizing to ensure Claxton residents feel safe. “I would just like to see it cleaned up,” she said. “We aren’t asking for everything — just clean water.”
Megan Jamerson is a freelance journalist based in Knoxville, Tennessee. Follow her on Twitter.