North AL watches Tennessee Coal Ash trial closely

Updated: Jan. 31, 2017 at 1:21 PM CST
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COLBERT COUNTY, AL (WAFF) - Homeowners who live near the TVA power plants in Tuscumbia and Stevenson are watching a federal trial closely in Nashville, TN this week.

That's because the Tennessee case could affect whether they band together and file a class action lawsuit against the TVA themselves. The Associated Press reports, environmental groups are suing the nation's largest public utility, accusing it of violating the Clean Water Act by polluting the Cumberland River.

As we told you in a special report on WAFF-TV, homeowners like Otis and Diane Perry are making similar accusations. They say, coal ash has left a dangerous and deadly legacy in their community in Tuscumbia.

They claim, more than one hundred people who live near the TVA's Colbert Plant either have cancer or have died from cancer. The Petty's tell us, filing a lawsuit against the TVA may be the only way to get millions of pounds of coal ash moved away from their homes.

During testimony in court this week, the Tennessee Clean Water Network and Tennessee Scenic Rivers Association claim, the Cumberland River continues to be polluted from stored coal ash at the TVA's Gallatin Plant, northeast of Nashville. Coal ash is a byproduct of burning coal for energy.

The TVA powers 9 million customers in parts of seven Southern states, including Alabama. Company spokesman Scott Brooks maintains, the TVA continues to follow all laws and decades of data show the company's storage of coal ash at the Gallatin Plant is not contaminating water sources.

Environmental groups are telling a much different story. The Southern Environmental Law Center says, toxic pollutants from coal ash storage ponds at the Gallatin Plant have been illegally seeping into the groundwater and the Cumberland River for years.

Based on a lawsuit filed in 2015, the environmental groups claim Tennessee regulators did not require proactive changes at the plant that would keep contaminates out of water sources.

In 2015, Tennessee environmental workers say they found higher than normal levels of a dangerous chemical, hexavalent chromium, in Albert Hudson's well water. Hudson lives near the Gallatin Plant, which is located on the Cumberland River. Hudson plans to testify against the TVA during this week's trial.

Brooks says Hudson's water met federal drinking standards, and maintains the TVA's monitoring data shows no impact on the Cumberland River from the nearby Gallatin Plant.

Recently, we asked the TVA about the possibility of a cancer cluster near its Colbert Plant in Tuscumbia, Alabama.  TVA's Director of Public Relations, Gail Rymer, told us, a study from the Department of Health shows there's no link between the Colbert Plant and any health problems. Rymer said, "We truly understand and feel for the folks who are ill and are looking for a reason why. But, there is no correlation between the operations at the plant and the illnesses that are being claimed by the residents."

However, the TVA did admit, the groundwater at its Colbert plant quote, "does not meet ADEM's groundwater protection standards."  The TVA's own testing shows levels of nine contaminants, including the cancer-causing chemical Arsenic, are above the state's guidelines. In fact, the level of Arsenic in the groundwater near the Colbert Plant was seven times higher than the EPA's maximum contaminant number.

The TVA is waiting on the results of state and federal cases before deciding how to store coal ash in the long term. The Petty family, their neighbors and environmental groups prefer the option of excavating the coal ash and sending it to dry, lined landfills.

The TVA opposes the idea of transporting the coal ash since it claims that method is more dangerous in the short term. The TVA's own study also shows, it's ten times more costly.

Brooks added, "We all agree that protecting our environment is a top priority. The TVA is committed to environmental stewardship and has a mandate to act with the interest of our 9 million consumers of TVA power in mind. The plaintiffs appear to have a much more narrow focus."

Diane and Otis Petty say they're just focused on saving lives, and so they'll be anxiously watching the results of the federal trial against the TVA in Nashville.

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