Illegal Discharge of Toxic Coal Ash into Waterways Prompts Legal Action
Citing ongoing coal waste contamination at Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA)’s Colbert Fossil Plant, conservation groups have charged that the facility is violating the Clean Water Act and that failure to address these violations will result in a lawsuit. As outlined in the 60-day notice of intent letter sent to TVA, violations at the coal-burning facility have caused significant amounts of pollutants to be discharged illegally into Cane Creek, a tributary of the Tennessee River, as well as groundwater in the area.
The letter—submitted by the Southern Environmental Law Center on behalf of Tennessee Riverkeeper, Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, Shoals Environmental Alliance and Waterkeeper Alliance—details how seepage from the facility’s coal ash ponds contains arsenic, a toxic substance and known carcinogen, as well as selenium, lead, iron, cadmium and other pollutants.
“The Colbert Fossil Plant has had ongoing and persistent pollution problems from its coal ash ponds for decades,” said Keith Johnston, managing attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center’s Birmingham office. “The only acceptable remedy is for TVA to stop this unpermitted discharge and to start storing all coal ash safely away from our waterways.”
Built in the 1950s, the aging Colbert plant is located on the Tennessee River and adjacent to one of its major tributaries, Cane Creek.
“Toxic metals in the seepage water negatively affects the health of the river and puts at risk the many fishermen, boaters, skiers and swimmers who use this area regularly, as well as those who depend on the river for their municipal drinking water supply,” said David Whiteside of the Tennessee Riverkeeper. “Citizens depend on a clean and healthy Tennessee River for drinking water, swimming, fishing and other recreational uses, as well as bringing in millions of dollars in recreational and tourism income throughout the Valley.”
The 60-day notice outlines ongoing surface and groundwater contamination from the Colbert Fossil Plant. TVA’s own documentation shows that its coal ash ponds and other waste impoundments have polluted the groundwater for almost thirty years, but despite TVA’s awareness of the contamination, it has continued to dispose and store the plant’s coal waste irresponsibly. In addition, Tennessee Riverkeeper has documented additional toxic discharges from the site flowing directly into Cane Creek.
The facility’s contamination originates from two coal ash ponds covering 127 acres total. The impoundments are unlined, meaning there is no barrier to prevent coal ash contaminants from reaching groundwater. And, indeed, documentation has confirmed seepage of arsenic and other pollutants through the sides and the bottoms of the ash ponds. At one location, sampling has shown arsenic levels that were more than fifty times Alabama’s Maximum Contaminant Level for arsenic.
Both the groundwater contamination and unpermitted surface water discharges constitute violations of the facility’s National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit and the Clean Water Act.
Donna Lisenby, the coal campaign coordinator for Waterkeeper Alliance said, “Since the TVA Kingston Fossil Plant coal ash spill in 2008, I have been working with Waterkeepers across the United States to document water pollution from coal-fired power plants. Two things make Colbert unique and distinguish it from hundreds of other coal ash ponds around the country. The first is that water tests results from Colbert’s unpermitted discharges have some of the highest levels of arsenic, lead, selenium, cadmium, chromium, boron, iron, manganese and molybdenum that we have seen anywhere in the southeast. The second is that TVA stored more than a million tons of coal waste in unlined ponds that were constructed on top of and adjacent to sink holes.”
“The contamination at Colbert is indicative of a broader problem across the Southeast, namely that utility regulators need to pay more attention to the problems posed and caused by these ill-maintained coal ash ponds,” said Ulla Reeves, regional program director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. “With TVA’s history of questionable coal ash management and in light of the Kingston coal ash disaster of 2008, we hope this notice will serve as another wake up call that TVA needs to clean up its act.”
Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker vetoed a sweeping climate bill on Thursday that would have put the commonwealth on a path to eliminating carbon emissions by 2050.
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By Ajit Niranjan
World leaders and businesses are not putting enough money into adapting to dangerous changes in the climate and must "urgently step up action," according to a report published Thursday by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP).
Adaptation Has a Long Way to Go<p>The Adaptation Gap Report, now in its 5th year, finds "huge gaps" between what world leaders agreed to do under the 2015 <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/5-years-paris-climate-agreement/a-55901139" target="_blank">Paris Agreement</a> and what they need to do to keep their citizens safe from climate change.</p><p>A review by the Global Adaptation Mapping Initiative of almost 1,700 examples of climate adaptation found that a third were in the early stages of implementation — and only 3% had reached the point of reducing risks.</p><p>Disasters like storms and droughts have grown stronger than they should be because people have warmed the planet by burning fossil fuels and chopping down rainforests. The world has heated by more than 1.1 degrees Celsius since the Industrial Revolution and is on track to warm by about 3°C by the end of the century.</p><p>If world leaders <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/climate-change-performance-index-how-far-have-we-come/a-55846406" target="_blank">deliver on recent pledges</a> to bring emissions to <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/joe-bidens-climate-pledges-are-they-realistic/a-56173821" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">net-zero</a> by the middle of the century, they could almost limit warming to 2°C. The target of the Paris Agreement, however, is to reach a target well below that — ideally 1.5°C. </p><p>There are two ways, scientists say, to lessen the pain that warming will bring: mitigating climate change by cutting carbon pollution and adapting to the hotter, less stable world it brings.</p>
The Cost of Climate Adaptation<p>About three-quarters of the world's countries have national plans to adapt to climate change, according to the report, but most lack the regulations, incentives and funding to make them work.</p><p>More than a decade ago, rich countries most responsible for climate change pledged to mobilize $100 billion a year by 2020 in climate finance for poorer countries. UNEP says it is "impossible to answer" whether that goal has been met, while an OECD study published in November found that between 2013 and 2018, the target sum had not once been achieved. Even in 2018, which recorded the highest level of contributions, rich countries were still $20 billion short.</p><p>The yearly adaptation costs for developing countries alone are estimated at $70 billion. This figure is expected to at least double by the end of the decade as temperatures rise, and will hit $280-500 billion by 2050, according to the report.</p><p>But failing to adapt is even more expensive.</p><p>When powerful storms like cyclones Fani and Bulbul struck South Asia, early-warning systems allowed governments to move millions of people out of danger at short notice. Storms of similar strength that have hit East Africa, like <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/zimbabwe-after-cyclone-idai-building-climate-friendly-practices/a-54251885" target="_blank">cyclones Idai</a> and Kenneth, have proved more deadly because fewer people were evacuated before disaster struck.</p><p>The Global Commission on Adaptation estimated in 2019 that a $1.8 trillion investment in early warning systems, buildings, agriculture, mangroves and water resources could reap $7.1 trillion in benefits from economic activity and avoided costs when disasters strike.</p>
Exploring Nature-Based Solutions<p>The report also highlights how restoring nature can protect people from climate change while benefiting local communities and ecology.</p><p><a href="https://www.dw.com/en/climate-fires-risk-climate-change-bushfires-australia-california-extreme-weather-firefighters/a-54817927" target="_blank">Wildfires</a>, for instance, could be made less punishing by restoring grasslands and regularly burning the land in controlled settings. Indigenous communities from Australia to Canada have done this for millennia in a way that encourages plant growth while reducing the risk of uncontrolled wildfires. Reforestation, meanwhile, can stop soil erosion and flooding during heavy rainfall while trapping carbon and protecting wildlife.</p><p>In countries like Brazil and Malaysia, governments could better protect coastal homes from floods and storms by restoring <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/mudflats-mangroves-and-marshes-the-great-coastal-protectors/a-50628747" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">mangroves</a> — tangled trees that grow in tropical swamps. As well as anchoring sediments and absorbing the crash of waves, mangroves can store carbon, help fish populations grow and boost local economies through tourism. </p><p>While nature-based solutions are often cheaper than building hard infrastructure, their funding makes up a "tiny fraction" of adaptation finance, the report authors wrote. An analysis of four global climate funds that spent $94 billion on adaptation projects found that just $12 billion went to nature-based solutions and little of this was spent implementing projects on the ground.</p><p>But little is known about their long-term effectiveness. At higher temperatures, the effects of climate change may be so great that they overwhelm natural defenses like mangroves.</p><p>By 2050, <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/rising-sea-levels-should-we-let-the-ocean-in-a-50704953/a-50704953" target="_blank">coastal floods</a> that used to hit once a century will strike many cities every year, according to a 2019 report on oceans by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the gold standard on climate science. This could force dense cities on low-lying coasts to build higher sea walls, like in Indonesia and South Korea, or evacuate entire communities from sinking islands, like in Fiji.</p><p>It's not a case of replacing infrastructure, said Matthias Garschagen, a geographer at Ludwig Maximilian University in Germany and IPCC author, who was not involved in the UNEP report. "The case for nature-based solutions is often misinterpreted as a battle... but they're part of a toolkit that we've ignored for too long."</p>
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