TVA’s Toxic Legacy: Groundwater Contaminated by Tennessee Valley Authority Coal Ash

The billion-gallon spill at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s (TVA’s) Kingston plant in 2008 reminded us that unregulated and poorly maintained coal ash ponds are an invitation to disaster. Although less visible, contamination below the surface of TVA’s power plants may be the more serious, long-lasting legacy from decades of mismanagement. Based on a review of documents obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests, this report shows that TVA’s ponds and landfills have contaminated groundwater under and around all eleven of the utility’s fleet of coal-fired power plants.

The impacted groundwater is now unsafe for human consumption. The polluted groundwater is also draining into nearby rivers and streams, presenting a long-term environmental threat. The evidence of contamination is substantial, but it understates the damage due to gaps in data collection and because TVA stopped monitoring at some sites after initial results indicated high levels of contamination. No cleanup plans are in place at these sites, as state oversight is minimal and EPA has yet to set federal standards to guide the monitoring and cleanup of groundwater at coal ash sites. TVA needs a comprehensive, system-wide plan to strengthen its groundwater monitoring network and remediate the toxic legacy that coal ash disposal has created.