(CN) - Two conservation groups claim in a lawsuit filed Tuesday that the Tennessee Valley Authority is ignoring its own illegal pollution from a coal plant.
The Tennessee Clean Water Network and Tennessee Scenic Rivers Association sued the TVA in Federal Court, claiming it dumps toxic waste in ponds outside a coal plant in violation of the Clean Water Act.
The lawsuit claims that for 60 years the TVA has disposed of its Gallatin, Tenn. coal plant's combustion waste in ash ponds at the back of the plant. The plaintiffs allege more than 2.5 billion gallons of toxic waste has been disposed of in three ash ponds at the site. They say the problem is that the ash ponds are unlined, allowing waste to contaminate local water.
"TVA has allowed the very pollutants that the coal ash ponds were supposed to treat and remove to enter the groundwater and nearby surface waters, including the Cumberland River, directly and through hydrologic connections in the groundwater, all in violation of the [National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System] Permit and/or the Clean Water Act," the complaint states.
The coal plant in question is located about five miles outside of Gallatin on Old Hickory Lake. It has been running since the late 1950s and burns about four million tons of coal each year, resulting in about 235,000 tons of coal ash, according to the complaint. In addition to the unlined ash ponds, sinkholes have also caused contamination of water near the coal plant, the lawsuit alleges.
The complaint cites a recent test of water in the river allegedly showing elevated levels of pollutants.
"In February 2015, independent testing of the sediment at four locations at the shore of the Cumberland River adjacent to [an] abandoned ash pond showed levels of arsenic above EPA region 4 sediment screening values, two of the sediment samples exceeded EPA region 4 sediment screening values for copper and nickel, and one exceeded that standard for zinc," the lawsuit states.
The lawsuit claims TVA is aware of the problem but refuses to take remedial action, even after the Environmental Protection Agency determined the ash ponds could constitute a significant hazard a nearby dam fails.
"TVA has not cured all of the deficiencies identified by EPA, and continues to operate with dangerous structural conditions, ongoing contamination of groundwater and the Cumberland River, and seeps that leak pollutants from the coal ash ponds directly into the groundwater and the Cumberland River," the complaint states.
The two environmental groups say Tennessee brought a civil enforcement action against TVA in January but that complaint did not mention a number of alleged violations, including pollution in the Cumberland River. The groups claim that the alleged pollution also affects nearby Sinking Creek
The Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation has also failed to take any enforcement action against TVA despite being aware of the discharges into the Cumberland River, the complaint states.
The TVA is headquartered in Knoxville, Tenn. and operates in seven states, providing electricity, flood control and land management, according to its website. It is a corporation owned by the federal government.
The Tennessee Clean Water Network and Tennessee Scenic Rivers Association are nonprofits aiming to protect water from contamination, according to the complaint.
They seek a judgment that TVA is violating the Clean Water Act and civil penalties. The groups are represented by Southern Environmental Law Center.
TVA spokesman Scott Brooks told Courthouse News that the corporation is building a new dry landfill at the Gallatin plant and is in the process of "dewatering" the active ash pond system. He also said TVA studies have shown no environmental harm from the Gallatin plant and the studies indicated that groundwater impacts are limited to the plant site and do not affect drinking water.
"TVA is committed to providing safe, clean, reliable and affordable power," a statement provided to Courthouse News reads. "We are working toward a more diverse portfolio of generating assets and reducing the environmental impacts of those generation sources."
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