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The Clinch River: TVA’s Billion Gallon Toxic Toilet

November 16, 2009

Coal_Ash_Spill_0Environmental groups have challenged a Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) water pollution permit that would allow the troubled corporation to dump a million gallons of toxic coal-waste water into the same river that a TVA plant contaminated last year with a spill of a billion gallons of toxic coal ash.

A coal ash dike at the TVA’s Kingston Fossil Plant ruptured just days before Christmas 2008, ultimately spilling into area waterways more than a billion gallons of polluted coal fly ash slurry, the largest such release in U.S. history. Much of the toxic coal ash ended up in the Clinch River, which one advocate called the “lifeblood of a few million people.” A Duke University study after the 2008 spill concluded that “exposure to radium- and arsenic-containing particulates in the ash could have severe health implications” to people living in the affected areas.

Not content with despoiling the river and threatening the health of millions of people with its coal ash spill, TVA now wants to continue using the Clinch as its toilet, even though other coal plants have adopted pollution controls that eliminate such discharges. Earthjustice, the Environmental Integrity Project, and the Sierra Club have joined to challenge the plant’s water discharge permit, charging it violates the federal Clean Water Act.

The coal wastewater TVA wants to dump into the Clinch contains a toxic mix of chemicals including mercury, selenium and other pollutants. This May, months after last year’s spill, scientists found high levels of toxins in water and fish in the Clinch and other area rivers. According to their report, the selenium levels found in fish are already a threat to their reproduction and growth. In addition to selenium, the levels of arsenic, barium, cadmium, and lead were found to exceed drinking water standards and/or standards for protection of aquatic life.

In a blistering analysis of the root causes of the 2008 spill, TVA Inspector General Richard Moore blasted TVA management, noting internal TVA memos showing the agency was aware of problems at its coal ash ponds for more than twenty years yet failed to take recommended safety precautions. The report notes a 1987 internal memo stated that ash slurry in some ponds “have become quite high with increasing risk and consequences of a breech….” In Congressional testimony on the spill, Moore said that TVA “relegated ash to the status of garbage at a landfill rather than treating it as a potential hazard to the public and the environment.”

The TVA is a federally owned corporation created by congressional charter in 1933, and is the nation’s largest public power provider. Just months before the 2008 coal ash spill, and just after a 20% rate hike on TVA electricity users went into effect, the TVA Board approved a raise for President and CEO Tom Kilgore, increasing his total compensation from $2.7 million to $3.27 million.

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