It could take more than two decades, but the Tennessee Valley Authority has agreed to relocate nearly 12 million cubic yards of coal ash from an unlined pit at the Gallatin Fossil Plant. The federal utility announced Thursday it had settled a lawsuit with state regulators and environmental activists.
The Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation and the Southern Environmental Law Center sued TVA in 2015. They alleged the power plant’s unlined coal ash pond was leaking toxic chemicals into the groundwater and contaminating the Cumberland River and Old Hickory Lake.
The 60-years-worth of coal ash will remain on site but in a new, lined landfill. TVA president Jeff Lyash said the process will be complicated and could take more than two decades.
“The decisions that we make must be based on science and take the appropriate time needed to get to the right decision and make sure we can implement it correctly,” he said. “I know that folks would like us to move faster, but moving too fast can lead to the wrong decision.”
Coal ash is the toxic waste left behind after coal is burned for energy. Several studies have found exposure can pose a health risk. Because the Gallatin plant’s unlined coal ash pond sits on a bed of porous material, environmentalists worry contaminants could seep into the groundwater.
TVA has until September of next year to submit a plan to state regulators. The utility will then have 20 years to fully decommission the ash pond.
The Gallatin plant would be TVA’s first to empty its ash pond, but the utility is considering similar plans at plants across the state. Coal ash ponds have been scrutinized since one collapsed a decade ago at another TVA plant in East Tennessee.
As part of the settlement, the SELC will have 30 days to comment on the proposal due next year.
This legal victory was a long time coming, said Amanda Garcia, managing attorney for the Tennessee office of the SELC.
“This agreement shows that TVA, contrary to the position that it’s taken over the past five years, can clean up its coal ash, can move it away from the leaking, unlined pits, away from our rivers and streams,” she said.
Samantha Max is a Report for America corps member.