Federal coal plant rollbacks allow TVA to pollute water ways


JoAnn McIntosh, Guest columnist
Published 8:01 a.m. ET Nov. 27, 2020

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Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) Gallatin Steam Plant

Nashville Tennessean

The Cumberland City plant was found to be the worst mercury polluter and second worst selenium polluter among coal plants nationwide.

Late last August, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency finalized a rollback of standards adopted in 2015 that would keep some of the nation’s biggest industrial polluters — coal-burning power plants – from dumping harmful toxic pollution into the nation’s waterways.

Sadly, this decision will have an outsized and lasting effect on the health and safety of all Tennesseans.

Each year, the Tennessee Valley Authority generates thousands of pounds of wastewater pollution at its coal plants. Historically, TVA used leaking, unlined pits to manage the flows of this polluted water, and was allowed to dump its waste into nearby lakes and rivers, just upstream from drinking water sources, through weak Clean Water Act permits. Following the Kingston coal ash disaster, TVA committed to dry processing its coal ash waste. Although TVA is still working toward that goal, large quantities of toxic pollutants are still getting into our waterways.

TVA has continually asked for exemptions to environmental protections

The 2015 safeguards were supposed to fix this problem. Tennessee issued new Clean Water Act permits that demanded considerable reductions in the toxic discharges in compliance with the new federal limits.

But instead of complying with the law, TVA asked instead for the maximum amount of time before cutting its contaminated wastewater discharges. Even worse, at the Cumberland coal plant, TVA asked EPA to excuse it altogether from some of the most crucial protections in the law.

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TVA’s Cumberland plant sits on the Cumberland River southwest of Clarksville, just upstream from Cross Creeks National Wildlife Refuge and other places Tennesseans like to hunt and fish. In 2016, the Environmental Integrity Project found that Cumberland was the worst mercury polluter and second worst selenium polluter among coal plants nationwide, based on information TVA provided to EPA for its Toxics Release Inventory. Mercury is a well-known poison to wildlife and people. Selenium can inhibit reproduction and growth, and cause deformities in fish and wildlife.  

Although TVA claims to have reduced its pollution in recent years, even EPA acknowledges that Cumberland is responsible for roughly one-sixth of all toxic wastewater pollution from coal plant flues in the country.

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