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While the Tennessee Valley Authority has claimed that the Environmental Protection Agency has “concurred in writing” with its plans to cap some coal ash impoundments, a recent letter from the agency says otherwise.

The October 18 letter from G. Alan Farmer, director of the EPA’s Resource Conservation and Restoration Division, clarifies that the agency neither approves nor disapproves of the plan.

Farmer says in his letter that “the meaning of the ‘Lack of Objections (LO) rating’…has been potentially misinterpreted…the EPA’s rating does not constitute approval or authorization.” The rating, rather, relies on TVA’s “commitment and ability to comply with the Coal Combustion Residuals (CCR) Rule as well as state regulatory and enforcement requirements.” The EPA recommends that the TVA, if it is unable to meet state and federal requirements, may want to re-evaluate their alternatives.

The TVA previously claimed that the EPA agreed with the plan to cap unlined coal ash ponds at Kingston, Bull Run, Allen and John Sevier plants in Tennessee, and Colbert and Widows Creek plants in Alabama.

In August 2016, at a meeting of the TVA Board of Directors, CEO Bill Johnson stated that TVA had determined that capping its leaking, unlined ash ponds in place is the “best option,” and “the Environmental Protection Agency has specifically concurred with us in writing… [and] agrees with” TVA’s decision to cap ash ponds in place.” (Johnson’s remarks are available in a recording of the meeting.)

The EPA’s letter of clarification is consistent with the Southern Environmental Law Center’s (SELC) interpretation of the utility’s pending obligation to comply with the federal Coal Ash Rule and state law.

According to Amanda Garcia, a staff attorney at SELC’s Nashville office, the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC) is overseeing the closure process and remediation of coal ash pollution at TVA’s ash impoundments throughout Tennessee, in accordance with an administrative order issued in August 2015.

“We anticipate,” says Garcia, “that TDEC will be reviewing closure plans for several of the ash impoundments at issue over the next few months.” Garcia penned an August op-ed in the Knoxville News, in which she noted that, “Where utilities have done the appropriate analysis and excavated ash, such as in South Carolina, they have documented dramatic drops in groundwater contamination.

“In contrast, neither we nor TVA have identified a single example where capping coal ash has worked to protect groundwater and the surface water into which it flows.”

The TVA, when contacted, replied that they appreciate the EPA’s clarification. “We are moving forward with our plans in accordance with the CCR rule and state regulations,” said company spokesperson Scott Brooks.

Gillian Neimark

Jill Neimark is an Atlanta-based journalist who writes for venues such as Science, Scientific American, Discover, Nautilus, NPR, Quartz and others.