Environmental Protection

Coal Ash Pollutants Levels Exceed Health Guidelines

A new EIP Report describes TVA coal ash pollutants that were measured over the past five years, including arsenic, boron, and cobalt, exceed health guidelines.

Five years after the billion-gallon coal ash spill in Kingston, TN, a new report from Environmental Integrity Project (EIP) shows that decades of mismanagement have led to toxic groundwater pollution at all 11 Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) coal plants, with concentrations of arsenic, boron, cobalt, manganese, and other pollutants exceeding health-based guidelines in dozens of down-gradient wells.

The affected groundwater is now unsafe for human consumption. As it migrates into local surface water, the contamination also threatens aquatic ecosystems. The EIP report, which is based primarily on Freedom of Information Act requests, shows that TVA is not adequately monitoring much of the groundwater around its ash disposal areas.

The EIP analysis details TVA pollutants that exceed health-based guidelines and peak concentrations of toxic chemicals measured over the past five years. Contaminated groundwater under and around TVA facilities is widespread and includes boron, cobalt, manganese, and sulfate – all toxic pollutants known to be associated with coal ash.

EIP Director Eric Schaeffer said, “As we approach the five-year anniversary of the nation’s worst coal ash spill, TVA ought to be leading the effort to clean up groundwater contamination from its leaking landfills and ponds. Instead, the records show patchwork monitoring and no real effort to contain the damage at these sites. TVA needs a comprehensive plan to monitor and clean up the groundwater contamination caused by years of slipshod disposal practices.”

The EIP report shows that these coal ash indicator pollutants are now widespread. For example:

  • Arsenic has been linked to cancers of the skin, bladder, kidneys, and other organs. Average concentrations exceeded the Safe Drinking Water Act Maximum Contaminant Level at five TVA plants: Allen, Bull Run, Colbert, Cumberland Paradise, and John Sevier.
  • Boron may harm developing fetuses and contribute to testicular atrophy. Average boron concentrations have exceeded EPA’s recommended limit in over thirty monitoring wells at nine of TVA’s eleven plants.
  • Manganese at high doses can cause neurological toxicity. Average manganese concentrations have exceeded EPA’s recommended limit in fifty wells at ten TVA plants.

Concentrations of these and other pollutants frequently reach very high levels. Schaeffer continued: “Some of the spikes we see in the report are sky-high – peak concentrations of arsenic in one TVA monitoring well were nearly eight times above the Safe Drinking Water Act standard, while manganese concentrations in another were 700 times above the health advisory for lifetime exposure.” 

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