By Russ Corey Staff Writer
BARTON — The Tennessee Valley Authority has determined that capping the coal ash impoundment at the Colbert Fossil Plant is the most economically feasible option, a decision that does not sit well with some environmentalists.
TVA announced last week in its final environmental impact statement that it will cap and close 10 coal ash impoundments at six different coal-fired power plants, including its Barton facility in Colbert County.
In the study, TVA said it plans to spend $280 million to clean up the sites. TVA said it could take 10 times that much money to close and remove the coal ash from the sites and properly dispose of it.
“Our preferred method is closure in place, which is not as simple as drying it out and walking away,” TVA spokesman Scott Brooks said.
TVA decided in 2009 to move all its coal ash impoundments from wet storage to dry.
He said the ponds must be dewatered, then stabilized in place before being capped with a cover system that will prevent new sources of water from infiltrating the ash.
Removing the ash would involve removing the water, excavating the material, and hauling it to a Subtitle D landfill by either truck or rail, which would involve hundreds of truckloads of ash and create other environmental concerns.
There are no Subtitle D landfills in the Shoals.
The impoundment at the Colbert Fossil Plant contains 3.2 million cubic yards of coal ash, according to TVA.
Brooks said capping the Colbert Fossil Plant ash pond would take place within the next five years. The plant was permanently shut down in March.
Brooks said TVA has also reopened the comment period to allow the public to react to its decision to cap the ash impoundments. Comments will be accepted in writing or online until July 9.
“This is an additional comment period,” he said. “It’s not even required.”
Environmental organizations and local environmentalists are disappointed in TVA’s decision.
“TVA’s plan to cover up its toxic coal ash instead of cleaning it up is a plan to fail,” Tennessee Riverkeeper Founder and Executive Director David Whiteside said. “Capping these poisonous ponds will do nothing to prevent groundwater contamination.”
Whiteside said the ponds, many of which are decades old, vary in size from 10 acres to nearly 400 acres.
“If some of these coal ash ponds are capped as they stand today, the potential for another TVA Kingston disaster still exists,” he said.
On Dec. 22, 2008, 5.4 million cubic yards of coal ash from a ruptured pond at TVA’s Kingston Fossil Plant was discharged into the Emory and Clinch rivers, both tributaries of the Tennessee River. That event prompted TVA to move from wet to dry ash storage.
“We at Shoals Environmental Alliance are quite disappointed in TVA’s decision to cap their decommissioned coal ash ponds in place,” SEA President Charles Rose said. “These unlined ash storage facilities, as TVA well knows, are all leaking toxic substances into our ground and surface waters and will continue to do so for decades to come if this method is used.”
He said in February 2013, the Southern Environmental Law Center filed a notice of intent to sue TVA on behalf of the Shoals Environmental Alliance, Tennessee Riverkeeper and other groups, after samples of “seeps” leaking from the Colbert Fossil Plant ash pond were found to contain elevated levels of numerous toxic substances.
“TVA’s own testing of the ash pond repeatedly showed elevated levels of aluminum, arsenic, lead, cadmium, iron, manganese, selenium, sulfate, barium, vanadium and chromium,” Rose said. “TVA should do the right thing, as other utilities are doing, clean up these polluting ash ponds and remove the toxic contents to secure, lined, dry storage facilities away from our waterways.”
Brooks said after July 9 TVA will consider the comments it receives, and issue a “final record of decision” later this summer.
“We want to make this as open as we can,” Brooks said.
Even after the Colbert ash pond is capped, Brooks said TVA will still have to abide by any federal and state permit requirements for that type of disposal site.
Local environmentalist Nancy Muse attended the public hearing TVA held in January to advise the public of their options for closing the Colbert ash pond.
“I supported the option to store the ash on site as opposed to transporting the ash to another undisclosed facility,” Muse said. “The risk involved with transporting, such as accidental spillage in sensitive ecosystems and also in populated areas, caused me concern. Honestly, there is no perfect answer for dealing with coal ash even though the EPA finally came up with regulations in 2015.”
Still, she is concerned about the toxic metals like arsenic, mercury, selenium and many other known carcinogens and neurotoxins that are highly concentrated in the ash, “which makes it dangerous indefinitely.”
“There are many factors to consider, such as the ash leaching into groundwater, exposure to air, and and also washing into local streams and rivers,” Muse said.