AN UNDERGROUND RIVER RUNS THROUGH IT

Posted on November 8, 2017 by Andrew Goddard

Environmental groups have for years sought greater regulation of coal ash waste from coal-fired power plants.  It turns out an old-fashioned Clean Water Act (CWA) citizen suit is sometimes a more effective tool.

In August, Judge Waverly Crenshaw, of the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee, ordered the Tennessee Valley Authority to “wholly excavate the ash waste disposal areas” at the Gallatin Steam Plant and “relocate the excavated coal ash to a lined impoundment with no significant risk of discharge to waters of the United States.”  TVA estimates that this will take 24 years at a cost of $2 billion.  The least surprising aspect of this case: TVA has filed a notice of appeal.

How?  In 2015, the Tennessee Clean Water Network and the Tennessee Scenic Rivers Association filed a CWA citizen suit claiming that groundwater flowed through two ash pond areas and then to the nearby Cumberland River was an unpermitted point source.  Judge Crenshaw’s 125-page opinion in support of the Order includes this diagram showing one zone of earth penetrated only vertically (by storm water) and one penetrated both vertically and laterally (by storm water and groundwater):

 

This pretty much sums up the central issue in the case:  Is the groundwater flow through the lower part of coal ash landfill, picking up contaminants and transmitting them laterally to the Cumberland River, regulated by the CWA?

In his lengthy opinion, Judge Crenshaw found that the CWA does regulate groundwater where there is a direct and immediate hydrologic connection if plaintiffs are able to “prove a link between contaminated groundwaters and navigable waters.”  TVA argued that the CWA cannot reach discharges enabled by infiltration of rainwater that was not channeled by human act because they are not point sources, but Judge Crenshaw found that the ultimate question regarding point source is whether the pollutants were discharged from a discernable, combined, and discreet conveyance by any means.  He found that the entire ash dewatering complex was a discernible, combined and discreet manmade concentration of waste and that it was a “conveyance” because it is “unlined and leaking pollutants,” and thus is by definition “conveying pollutants.”

It takes a lot for a judge to impose $2 billion of costs on a public utility.  His displeasure with how the problem had been addressed over the past several decades was palpable.  He wrote that the older of the two coal ash sites

“…offers a grim preview of what it means to leave an abandoned unlined coal ash waste pond in place next to a river.  [It] has not been a waste treatment facility for over forty-five years. It has been ‘closed’ for almost twenty years.  Still, water infiltrates it.  Still, it leaks pollutants.  Still, counsel for TVA and counsel for environmental groups are locked in conflict about what can and should be done about it. … As long as the ash remains where it is in either site, there is every reason to think that the dangers, uncertainties and conflicts giving rise to this case will survive another 20 years, 45 years or more.  While the process of closure by removal would not be swift, it would, at least, end.” 

With that, he ordered that TVA remove the coal ash to an appropriate lined site that will not discharge into waters of the United States.

There was one bit of good news for TVA: because of the cost of the chosen remedy, Judge Crenshaw decided not to assess penalties. 

Not every argument was about such large costs.  TVA’s objection to the plaintiffs’ request for attorney’s fees and costs included an objection to caviar included in a claim for $200 for food and snack items purchased from Kroger before and during the trial.  The plaintiff’s response included a receipt showing the “caviar” purchase was $16.24 of “Texas Caviar,” and attached Kroger’s recipe therefor.  It is devoid of fish eggs but does include chopped cilantro.  The recipe is available through PACER here.



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