Tennessee Air Now Meets Smog Standards, but Needs to Clean Up Toxic Waste

EPA has announced a final determination that the Chattanooga area meets the 1997 federal fine particulate matter standard. The Chattanooga area includes Hamilton County, Tenn., in its entirety; Catoosa and Walker Counties in Georgia, in their entireties, and a portion of Jackson County in Alabama.

"We commend local and state officials, as well as the residents of the Chattanooga area, who have been working collaboratively with us to reach this milestone," said EPA Regional Administrator Gwen Keyes Fleming. “This accomplishment signifies that the citizens of Chattanooga are breathing cleaner air and leading healthier lives.

"The private and corporate citizens of Hamilton County again have shown that they can meet any challenge," said Bob Colby, director of the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Air Pollution Control Bureau. "We are pleased to be a small part of their success in improving air quality for the benefit of all,"

“I look forward to our continuing to work together on a regional and local basis to keep the air clean.” James A. Capp, hief of the Georgia Environmental Protection Division’s Air Protection Branch, noted that "This determination is confirmation that the clean air programs we have in place in Georgia are working. This success is the result of the effective partnerships that Georgia EPD has with the public, regulated community, nonprofit organizations and other governmental organizations."

EPA's decision to finalize the determination that the Chattanooga area is attaining the standard is based on the most recent air quality monitoring data for fine particulate matter. The Chattanooga area has made significant progress in improving air quality and has reached an important clean air milestone. Air in the Chattanooga area is meeting the health based standard set in 1997, and all three states are currently developing plans to put measures in place to ensure the area continues to meet this standard. This progress is a result of hard work and great cooperation among local, state and federal agencies, private partners and the approximately 520,000 citizens who live and work in the Chattanooga area.

Particulate matter pollution – especially fine particles – contains microscopic solids or liquid droplets that are so small that they can get deep into the lungs and cause serious health problems. Particles can cause premature death and a wide range of lung and heart disease, including heart attacks and asthma.

In not-so-good news, conservation groups filed an appeal before the Tennessee Water Quality Control Board challenging the issuance of a water discharge permit to the Tennessee Valley Authority’s John Sevier Fossil Plant in Rogersville. The appeal is intended to prevent toxic discharges of heavy metals associated with coal combustion waste water at the TVA coal plant.

The permit, issued on April 29, 2011 by the Tennessee Department of Environmental Conservation (TDEC), allows TVA to release wastewater from its coal ash pond into the Holston River without any substantial treatment technology.

“These big ash ponds don’t provide any treatment for dissolved heavy metals, but TDEC is allowing TVA to rely on them for treatment,” said Stephanie Matheny of Tennessee Clean Water Network.

“TVA is finally installing modern controls for air pollution at many of its old coal plants, but it’s refusing to install effective pollution controls to protect water,” added Abigail Dillen of Earthjustice.

The plant's settling pond discharges 5.77 million gallons of toxic coal combustion waters per day into a very low flow stream that discharges in turn to the Holston River, a water supply for thousands of people and a popular area for fishing and recreation.

“It is not acceptable that these discharges end up in a creek that runs through an area where TVA has a campground, soccer fields, a walking track, and boating ramps for fishermen,” said Josh Galperin of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. “ Tennessee families, children, and recreationists of all kinds may be unknowingly exposed to dangerous toxins as a result these releases.”

TDEC did acknowledge that TVA is required to meet discharge limits for arsenic and selenium, but the limits won’t be effective for at least two and a half years and likely longer.

“We see no practical or legal justification for delay—TDEC’s own calculations show that these limits are required now, and so they should be imposed immediately,” said Abel Russ of Environmental Integrity Project.

The overarching goal of the appeal and other recently filed appeals of other similar TVA discharge permits is to phase out the use of settling ponds as the sole method of “treating” the dangerous pollutants in the millions of gallons of toxic coal combustion wastes discharged from power plants every day. “It’s time for TVA to phase out its sprawling network of ash ponds and dams and convert to safer dry handling of its coal ash and sludge,” said Dillen of Earthjustice.

“We want to send a clear signal to state permitting agencies across the country,” said Russ of Environmental Integrity Project. “They must impose strong, technology-based numeric limits in permits until new EPA regulations become effective in 2014.”

Earthjustice and the Environmental Integrity Project are representing the Tennessee Clean Water Network, the Southern Alliance for clean Energy, and the Sierra Club in the case.

Since TVA became the self-described "backbone" of the U.S. power system in the 1950s, it has emitted and discharged countless tons of dangerous pollutants from its 11 coal-fired power plants located in Tennessee, Kentucky, and Alabama. In December 2008, TVA was responsible for the largest toxic coal ash spill on record when a dike at its Kingston Fossil Plant ruptured and spilled over one billion gallons of toxic coal ash into the Clinch River . Just weeks after the Kingston spill, a gypsum pond at TVA’s Widows Creek Plant in Alabama ruptured and spilled 10,000 tons of gypsum waste into the Tennessee River . Both spills originated at large “settling ponds” designed to hold a mixture of coal combustion wastes and wastewaters, which are laden with toxic metals, before discharging them into surrounding waterways.

TVA is the nation’s largest publicly owned utility. According to a July 2009 report published by the EPA, TVA operates five of the nation's 49 "highest hazard" coal combustion waste impoundments, as measured by likely deaths in the event of an impoundment failure.

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