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Tennessee Meteorite Site at Center of TVA Coal Compliance Issue

Nicole Erwin, WKMS


A Tennessee Valley Authority plan to change the disposal of coal ash has members of an environmental organization concerned about air and water quality surrounding the site. TVA is switching from wet coal ash storage to dry ash storage at the Cumberland Fossil Plant in Stewart County in an effort to comply with EPA regulations.


The Tennessee Valley Authority's Cumberland Fossil Plant in Stewart County, TN., lies directly on top of a hundred-million-year-old meteorite crater.

This natural history fact means the site has “fractures that plummet to several thousand feet and stretch for miles in all directions” according to the Southern Environmental Law Center in Nashville, TN.

SELC Staff Attorney Amanda Garcia says that makes the Cumberland site unsustainable for future storage of any Coal Combustion Residuals as the TVA attempts to move away from the wet ash storage process it currently maintains.

A spill at TVA’s Kingston Fossil Plant in 2008 prompted the decision to no longer store wet ash, as well as the 2015 Federal Environmental Protection Agency Coal Combustion Residual Rule, which specifies new requirements for CCR disposal.

Credit TVA
Aerial Imagery of Kingston Ash Spill

After the incident left more than 300 acres flooded and polluted nearby waterways, the TVA vowed to only store dry ash at its coal facilities, which would involve removing the water and storing it on-site, then covering it, or removing the byproducts completely and transporting it to a certified landfill.

Closing Ash Ponds in Place: Not CCR Compliant
“Under TVA’s plan, a serious pollution problem literally would be covered up. It needs to be cleaned up.” Garcia said.

Credit Nicole Erwin, WKMS
Diagram for Closure-in-Place Alternative

  TVA recently posted closure plans under the federal Coal Ash Rule indicating a preference forclosing the ash ponds in place.


According to Garcia this method would not meet the CCR Rule standards. Effectively, Garcia says covering unlined pits “results in polluting the groundwater that flows into rivers that serve as our state's primary drinking water supplies.”


TVA held an open house Monday night at Freedom Point at Clarksville's Liberty Park to open up discussions for potential plans for the Cumberland site.

TVA Seeks Input

TVA Spokesman Scott Brooks said a final environmental impact plan for disposing of CCRs isn’t expected to be finalized until 2018.

"This is basically the very beginning of an environmental impact statement process and tonight's meeting specifically is on the scoping, which means, we want input from the public on things we should be considering in the Environmental Impact Statement," Brooks said.

Sierra Club Volunteer Deeana Bowden drove an hour to learn more about TVA’s proposed processes.

“We are concerned that our energy systems stay as clean as they can, and we like to get out to protect our air and water and this beautiful river that we are looking out over right now,” said Deeana Bowden as she peaked out the window at the Cumberland River.

Credit Nicole Erwin, WKMS
Elizabeth Garber (left) and Deeana Bowden (right) complete commentary forms to submit for review


“I think it is definitely true that TVA has, around the state, done some significant cleaning up, they just need to keep doing more,” said Bowden as she stressed the significance of preventive efforts.

“It's better to spend a little up front and put the ash in dry lined storage, which we know now is better.” Bowden said.  

TVA: Too Early To Tell



Credit Nicole Erwin, WKMS
The National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA) Applies to federal actions, funding or permitting

  Twenty-nine year old Ashley Pilakowski is the project manager for the Cumberland Site and a NEPA (National and Environmental Policy Act of 1969) specialist. She is aware of the potential negative impacts a meteor could have caused at the site years ago and says everything that is being proposed is preliminary.   

“Part of the demonstrations for the CCR Rule look at stability and seismic [vulnerability], so it will look at the structural integrity of the impoundments, so all those are studies that have to be done prior to closure,” said Pilakowski.  

The results are expected by October 2018.  Pilakowski said the final EIS should be available by January 2019.

It is still too early to say what method will be most feasible according to TVA Spokesman Scott Brooks, though a programmatic EIS completed last year did highlight benefits to on site closure and storage.

SELC Wants Action Now

In a recent letter to TVA, the federal EPA explained that TVA must comply with the federal Coal Ash Rule and state law in order to move forward with its plans to cover up ash in place.  

“It’s been eight years since the Kingston incident,” said SELC Attorney Amanda Garcia. “Look where we are now.” She says she is hesitant to believe the efforts will lead to full compliance.

In January 2016 SELC sent, on behalf of the Sierra Club, anotice of intent to sue the TVA in federal court over violations of the Clean Water Act at TVA’s Cumberland Fossil Plant.

“Their letter was pretty clear about their intent within 60 days, and it was filed 11 months ago,” said Scott Brooks. He said the law does not require a response.

The State of Tennessee has also issued anadministrative order to investigate and remedy existing contamination at Cumberland and oversee TVA’s compliance with the federal Coal Ash Rule at the site.

Public Comment Remains Open
The public comment period will remain open through Jan. 6, 2017. The EIS will look at potential environmental and socio-economic impacts of various alternatives for the future handling and storage of CCR at Cumberland.


Documents and a comment form can be found online at

Comments can also be addressed to Ashley Pilakowski at 400 West Summit Hill Drive, WT 11D-K, Knoxville, TN 37902, or emailed to

Nicole Erwin is a Murray native and started working at WKMS during her time at Murray State University as a Psychology undergraduate student. Nicole left her job as a PTL dispatcher to join the newsroom after she was hired by former News Director Bryan Bartlett. Since, Nicole has completed a Masters in Sustainable Development from Monash University in Melbourne, Australia where she lived for 2 1/2 years.
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