Dressed in yellow T-shirts emblazoned with the words "Beyond Coal," more than a dozen Sierra Club activists and other area residents voiced their concerns Thursday that Tennessee lacks the proper oversight for coal ash.
The Tennessee Valley Authority plans a new 54-acre landfill to store coal ash from its Gallatin Fossil Plant, and the activists turned out for a public hearing on the proposal at the Sumner County Administrative Building.
Coal ash is the waste from burning coal to produce electricity, and it contains arsenic, selenium, mercury and other pollutants — all harmful to people and wildlife when found in high concentrations.
TVA needs a permit for the landfill from the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, which has granted tentative approval. The state held Thursday's public hearing to gather input from area residents.
The Sierra Club and other environmental groups believe TDEC's standards for coal-ash storage are weak and want the state to impose strict safeguards for the Gallatin site.
Chris Ann Lunghino with the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign said if coal ash is not stored properly it can lead to "dangerous contamination of our drinking water."
"We need stronger standards for coal ash disposal," she said. "That is why we are here tonight."
The $30 million landfill is part of TVA's work to install more than $1 billion in new air pollution-control equipment at the site, the closest coal-fired power plant to Nashville.
TVA's Gallatin plant burns 13,000 tons of coal a day and produces enough electricity to power the equivalent of 300,000 homes. But burning coal produces harmful pollutants, including mercury, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides. Those substances can cause a host of health problems and lead to premature death.
The upgrades include the installation of four scrubbers to cut sulfur dioxide emissions and a selective catalytic reduction system — much like a giant version of a car's catalytic converter — to reduce nitrogen oxide levels.
The pollution controls will help TVA comply with agreements it signed with the EPA, four states and three environmental groups to resolve alleged violations of the federal Clean Air Act at its coal-fired power plants.
But removing all those pollutants from the air translates into waste that must be stored in a landfill. The scrubbers turn sulfur dioxide into dry ash and gypsum. The landfill is expected to take between 1,100 and 2,400 tons of material a day, according to a TDEC fact sheet on the proposal.
The new landfill will hold what is called dry coal ash. Environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, say that is far safer than wet storage. But they still raise concerns because of the landfill's proximity to the Cumberland River.
Brian Paddock, the legal chairman for the Tennessee chapter of the Sierra Club, praised TVA for converting to dry-ash storage. But he said it is unfortunate that the agency decided to build the landfill so close to Cumberland River, a move he called questionable.
Pat Flood, TDEC's director of solid waste management, said the state's landfill requirements have safeguards in place. The state is requiring multiple liners and a collection system so any runoff does not make its way into groundwater supplies or the river, as well as monitoring, he said.
TVA officials said the landfill is part of the agency's plans to convert all of the power plants it plans to continue operating from wet- to dry-ash storage.TVA expects to spend between $1.5 billion and $2 billion making the conversion at plants that it will continue operating after 2020, including Gallatin.
In 2008, a dike at a wet-ash storage pond failed at TVA's Kingston Fossil Plant, spilling 5.4 million cubic yards of coal ash into the Emory and Clinch rivers. It was the nation's largest coal-ash spill.
Existing wet storage ponds at Gallatin will eventually be closed, dried and capped, according to TVA.
Speakers at the public hearing included Sumner County commissioners and Gallatin Mayor Jo Ann Graves.
"I am an avid boater. We boat. We fish. We swim in that river," Graves said, expressing her support for the environment. "But the TVA plant represents jobs, and it represents economic development to this area."
James Fenton, executive director of the Gallatin Economic Development Agency, also praised TVA for helping create jobs. The air pollution controls — and thus the landfill — are needed for TVA to continue providing low-cost electricity, he said.
Denying the landfill permit, Fenton said, could hurt the reliability of electricity and "would be catastrophic to our community."
Other residents asked TDEC to simply do its job.
Michelle Haynes, 62, can see the power plant's smokestacks from her Lock 4 Road home.
"TDEC, please monitor what is going on," she said. "That is the key to what is keeping our environment the way it should be."
Reach Duane W. Gang at 615-726-5982 or on Twitter @duanegang.