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Tennessee Valley Authority Vice President Scott Turnbow, left, and Project Manager Michael Clemmons describe how coal ash is stored at the Gallatin Fossil Plant during a site tour Thursday, June 13.

The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) will dig up nearly 12 million cubic yards of coal ash stored at its Gallatin Fossil Plant as part of a lawsuit settlement with the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC), officials with both organizations announced last week.

As part of the agreement, TVA will be required to remove the coal combustion residuals (CCR) from its unlined 390-acre ash pond complex and remediate the area in accordance with state law, according to a news release June 13. The excavated material must either be placed in a lined, permitted landfill or recycled for reuse in concrete or other construction materials.

A proposal from TVA would expand an existing landfill at the Gallatin facility in order to store the coal ash, which TVA President and CEO Jeff Lyash described as the “right decision for this site.”

“An on-site landfill eliminates the concerns about traffic and the impacts to neighborhoods associated with trucking to a facility off-site,” Lyash said during a news conference on the same day the settlement was announced. “It is also expected to shorten the timeframe and to lower the cost of removal and placement. We will continue our detailed environmental review of the site and based on those results, develop an engineering plan to safely move the materials from the identified ponds.”

TVA is required to develop a plan for the removal of material from the ash pond complex and submit it to TDEC by Sept. 30, 2020. Once the plan is approved, TVA will then have 20 years to complete the work.

In 2015, TDEC filed a lawsuit in Davidson County Chancery Court in 2015 alleging violations of the Tennessee Solid Waste Disposal Act and the Tennessee Water Quality Control Act as a result of TVA’s coal ash disposal practices at the Gallatin Fossil Plant.

The litigation came shortly after the Tennessee Clean Water Network and Tennessee Scenic Rivers Association sent a 60-day notice of violation letter to the TVA, United States Environmental Protection Agency and TDEC under a provision of the federal Clean Water Act alleging multiple violations related to the plant’s operation of its on-site ash ponds in November 2014.

“After years of tireless advocacy by our clients, Tennessee Clean Water Network and Tennessee Scenic Rivers Association, we’re pleased to have been able to work with the State of Tennessee to achieve a resolution that will safely remove and clean up coal ash from TVA’s leaking, unlined pits at Gallatin,” Southern Environmental Law Center Managing Attorney Amanda Garcia said in a statement about the settlement. “This case has helped to protect the Cumberland River, a precious resource for drinking water and recreation in Middle Tennessee.”

As part of the settlement, TVA will also be required to complete a final environmental assessment report to identify the extent of soil, surface water and groundwater contamination at the facility.

TVA: Project estimated at $640 million

Located on 1,950 acres along the north bank of the Cumberland River, the Gallatin Fossil Plant has been in operation since 1959 and currently provides power to 565,000 homes.

TVA Vice President Joe Hoagland said last week that extensive environment testing at the site found that karst “exists and is fairly extensive” in the ash pond complex, which is located near the Cumberland River. Over time, that soft rock can be eroded away by water leading to the formation of things like sinkholes, caves and underground streams.

While some groundwater contamination has been found at the Gallatin facility, Hoagland said it is not moving off-site “at this point.”

“As part of the (testing) we did, there was a dye trace study that demonstrated there was connectivity from somewhere in our ash complex through that karst material that would get to the river,” Hoagland said. “But we’ve not measured any measurable amounts of contaminants in the river.

“We have also looked at residences around here and we have not found any instance where there has been any contamination due to our activities here at Gallatin.”

If ingested, toxicants present in coal ash can cause cancer, heart damage, lung disease, respiratory distress, kidney disease, reproductive problems, gastrointestinal illness, birth defects and impaired bone growth in children, according to Physicians for Social Responsibility.

While karst formations also exist on the property where the new lined coal ash landfill is being prosed, Hoagland said they are much smaller, easier to manage and “won’t be a problem for us going forward.”

In addition to submitting its plan for the removal of material from the ash pond complex to the state, TVA will also be required to provide a provide a copy to the Tennessee Clean Water Network and Tennessee Scenic Rivers Association. The citizens groups will then have 30 days to provide comments on the proposal.

According to TDEC, the closure of the ash pond complex and remediation of the area must be done in compliance with the Tennessee Solid Waste Disposal Act.

The total project is estimated to cost $640 million and has been included in TVA’s current financial plan to avoid creating “any sort of pressure on rate increases,” according to Lyash.

“We are pleased to bring this matter to a positive conclusion,” TDEC Commissioner David Salyers said in a statement regarding the settlement of the lawsuit with TVA. “This settlement will resolve environmental issues at the Gallatin Fossil Plant and we look forward to continuing our work with TVA and non-governmental organizations to further protect our environment and our citizens.”

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