Coal ash and the fight for clean water: A WAFF special report

(Source: WAFF)
(Source: WAFF)
Published: May. 7, 2018 at 6:18 PM CDT|Updated: May. 17, 2018 at 9:51 AM CDT
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TUSCUMBIA, AL (WAFF) - Some describe it as a modern day David versus Goliath. A cancer survivor, with limited means, taking on a billion dollar utility. Environmental groups are hoping a legal victory in Tennessee will pave the way for a coal ash cleanup in the Shoals.

Cancer survivor Otis Petty paints a bleak picture.

"Every house in my community has multiple people with cancer, COPD," Petty said.

Petty is still dealing with the lasting effects of his throat cancer. He blames the coal ash that's stored on site at the TVA plant near his home in Tuscumbia. While coal is no longer being used to generate electricity in North Alabama, environmental groups worry that the ash is seeping into the soil, into the ground water and eventually the Tennessee River.

Keith Johnston with the Southern Environmental Law Center said, "It's a huge industrial source of pollution. It's causing ground water and surface water contamination at just about every site we've ever looked at."

Federal law does require utilities like the TVA to test the water around their plants to see if it contains any dangerous contaminants. The Southern Environmental Law Center says the results are telling at the site in Colbert County.

Johnston studied the research and said, "Just recently, in some of their recent ground water reports, which all the coal ash ponds under the 2015 federal rule had to post ground water monitoring results, showed arsenic levels above the maximum contaminate levels. So, there's arsenic, there's boron, there are all kinds of heavy metals that come out of these coal ash ponds that have been found in the ground water in all these sites."

Research shows that long-term exposure to Arsenic causes cancer. Yet, the TVA maintains, the contaminants found in the ground water aren't flowing into the river. Scott Brooks with TVA public relations said there is no link between the chemicals and any health issues in the Shoals.

"We've shared with them the data from decades of research of monitoring and on-going monitoring of that site that shows, overall, nothing is moving off the site that shouldn't be," Brooks said.

The TVA claims by placing a cap on the coal ash, it can be safely stored. Yet, Petty said he's sick and tired of watching his friends and family members die from cancer.

Petty said at least he has some hope in his crusade to get the coal ash moved away from his home.

Recently, a federal judge ruled that the TVA is violating the Clean Water Act at its plant in Gallatin, Tennessee by allowing pollutants to leak into the Cumberland River. The judge ordered the utility to move decades of coal ash to a lined landfill.

The TVA is appealing that ruling, saying the cleanup may cost $2 billion and take more than two decades.

"Certainly the transport is a huge expense. If you have to move it off-site, and it does, it would tend to be more expensive than to move it somewhere on-site. And we are trying to look out for the 9 million consumers we serve and not put an undue burden on them in any case," said Brooks.

Yet, what about moving coal ash away from the plants in Alabama? Experts say it won't happen anytime soon unless environmental groups win in federal court. The SELC claims that state environmental officials have a hands-off approach with the TVA.

"So, I don't know how comfortable ADEM is with arsenic getting into ground water and surface water, but we're certainly not comfortable with it. And we're trying to protect the public health and environment," Johnston said.

ADEM would not answer any of WAFF 48's questions about coal ash on camera. Instead, they issued this statement:

The public drinking water systems that operate in the TVA area have not detected any issues at those facilities. ADEM is confident that the adopted rules, which will be submitted as part of a program approval to the EPA in June, are protective of the environment and public health.

Environmental groups are lobbying against the new coal ash rules. The SELC is concerned power companies would have less oversight in how they monitor coal ash pollutants, and how they follow through on any needed cleanup.

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