Tennessee and coal

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With 2.80 million tons of coal mined in 2006, Tennessee is one of the lesser coal mining states, making up only 0.2% of U.S. coal production.[1] Coal mines employed 643 people in 2006, all of which were non-union.[2]

Tennessee had 63 coal-fired generating stations in 2005, with a total of 10,290 MW of capacity; this represents 44.8% of the state's electric generating capacity, and makes Tennessee the 14th biggest coal energy producing state.[3]

In 2006, Tennessee's coal-fired power plants produced 60.6 million tons of CO2, 263,000 tons of sulfur dioxide, and 98,000 tons of nitrogen oxide; power plants were responsible for 50.5% of the state's total CO2 emissions.[4]In 2005, Tennessee emitted 20.1 tons of CO2 per person - roughly equal to the U.S. average.[5] Despite strongly relying on coal power, Tennessee has a lower-than-expected level of CO2 emissions, in part because - thanks to the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) - the state gets 3,948 MW (17.2%) of its electric generating capacity from hydroelectric dams.

In May 2010 the Union of Concerned Scientists released a report titled, Burning Coal, Burning Cash: Ranking the States that Import the Most Coal. In the paper the group reported that Tennessee was the eighth most coal dependent state in the country, spending $1.2 billion on coal imports in 2008.[6]


While coal mining is relatively unimportant in Tennessee today, the state was once one of the largest coal producers in the United States.

The building of the Nashville & Chattanooga Railroad in 1855 opened hitherto economically unprofitable areas to coal mining. These railroads put the state under a crushing debt; beginning in the 1870's, Tennessee relieved that debt in part by leasing convicts to coal mining companies - especially to Tennessee Coal & Iron - to work in the mines. The majority of these convict-miners were black, and their labor was used to break the backs of nascent coal miners' unions; the state also increased punishments for petty crimes, in order to ensure a steady supply of workers for the mining industry. In 1871, white paid coal miners struck against the use of convicts in the Tracy City mines, and even attacked the prison compound with the goal of freeing the convicts; they were unsuccessful. In 1891, striking coal miners in Briceville were successful in their attempt to free coal-mining convicts; in the following year, the convict lease system was abolished, but was replaced by a substitute system: a prison in which convicts would mine coal for the state.

In the 1880's, the state's railway network was dramatically expanded; coal mined in Tennessee grew exponentially thereafter, from 133,000 tons in 1870 to 2.17 million tons (about the same as the current total) in 1890, and then to 7 million tons by 1910. Coal companies (legally or not) acquired the land of individual farmers; by the early 20th century, the American Association - a British coal mining company - owned roughly 80% of the land in Campbell and Claiborne counties. Southern and eastern European immigrants were brought in to break strikes by Tennessee natives, and caused a surge in the state's population.[7]

Between the 1930's and the 1960's, Tennessee's coal production fluctuated at 5-6 million tons per year; however, throughout that period, employment dropped precipitously, due to increasing mechanization. In the 1970's, coal mining boomed, and production peaked at 11.2 million tons per year in 1972; strip mining in general, and mountaintop removal mining in particular, became much more important during the 70's. Since then, production has declined rapidly, especially since 1990, with the rise of Powder River Basin coal; in 2006, the state produced 2.8 million tons of coal.[8]

In 1933, President Roosevelt created the Tennessee Valley Authority, a public power company built with the aim of creating economic development in the Tennessee River Valley of Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, and Kentucky. The TVA relied heavily on coal power, and private companies were unable to compete with this public utility. Today, the TVA owns 42 coal-fired power plants in Tennessee, which produce a massive 97.4% of all coal power generated in the state. Out of these 42 coal plants that the TVA owns, all but three were built before 1960.[3]

Legislative issues

The Tennessee General Assembly meets in Nashville each year beginning in January. Generally, legislative sessions last through late April or May of each year.[9]

In January 2008, State Senator Raymond Finney introduced a bill (SB3822/HB3348), called the Tennessee Scenic Vistas Protection Act, that would effectively end the practice of mountaintop removal coal mining in the state of Tennessee. Sen. Finney worked with the Lindquist Environmental Appalachian Fellowship (LEAF) and eleven other co-sponsors in the House and Senate to draft the legislation.[10] LEAF is a Tennessee faith-based environmental stewardship group whose mission, according to their website, "is to bring the issue of mountaintop removal to the attention of East Tennessee’s Christian communities and encourage them to address the environmental destruction and economic injustice this practice inflicts on the land and people of Appalachia".[11]

A major provision in the legislation would ban all surface coal operations or the resulting waste within 100 feet of any stream or river unless the operation was to improve the quality of the a stream previously destroyed by mining. This would end the current practice of dumping the mining waste directly into the streams and valleys.[12]

The legislation would also ban all surface mining above 2000 feet in elevation.

A hearing on the bill was held in March 2008. Citizens presented evidence of Tennessee surface coal mining operators violating federal law and a list of numerous citations found at mining sites by the federal Office of Surface Mining inspectors. National Coal Corp. alone had more than 50 citations. National Coal president and CEO, Daniel A. Roling, responded by threatening the legislators that if they allowed the bill to be passed, National Coal would pull a planned $30 million investment away from the state and give it "to Alabama or somewhere else."[13]

In April 2008, as a final act before recessing for the year, the House Environment Subcommittee voted against allowing the bill to move forward by a vote of 3-5.[14]

Another bill introduced in January 2008 (SB2671/HB2895) would increase the tax on coal mined in Tennessee from a flat 20 cents per ton to 4.5 percent of gross value. An amendment to the bill called for using half of the revenue generated from the tax to make an attempt at repairing some of the environmental damage from strip mining left behind by coal companies. The rest of the revenue would go to the schools and highways in counties directly affected by coal mining.

Governor Phil Bredesen stated support for the bill saying, "I don't think we should be a cheap place to mine coal."[15]

On April 8, 2008 the bill passed the Senate Tax Subcommittee and was forwarded to the Finance Committee. The Finance Committee did not move on the bill before ending their legislative year.[16]

In 2010, a bill that would have banned most types of mountaintop removal mining in Tennessee failed after a house committee refused to vote on it.[17]

Lawmakers seek funding for clean coal plants

In March 2011, it was reported that East Tennessee lawmakers are pushing a plan for the state and private investors to bankroll two pilot plants to demonstrate how coal reportedly can be converted into a cleaner fuel while also harvesting oil as a byproduct. Richard Wolfe is a physicist who patented the process of changing coal into what he calls carbonite. In that process, pollutants like mercury are reportedly stripped from coal and could be marketed, while marketable petroleum also would be extracted, Rep. Tony Shipley, R-Kingsport said. In an overview prepared by Shipley and Wolfe, it's proposed that the state provide a $10 million grant to build and run a demonstration plant in Kingsport that would be in operation by October 2012. Should that prove successful, a larger, $28 million commercial plant also would be located in Kingsport, with startup by late 2013. A final phase anticipates a partnership with TVA to operate a commercial plant at TVA's Kingston Fossil Plant, according to the overview. Those pushing the effort say carbonite could replace coal now burned at that plant. Wolfe says the U.S. Department of Energy several years ago underwrote a $9 million grant to study the process he developed for extracting mercury and other pollutants from coal.[18]

Tennessee Scenic Vistas Protection act

The Tennessee Scenic Vistas Protection act would eliminate high-elevation surface mining techniques – such as mountaintop removal – above 2,000 feet of elevation in the state of Tennessee. The legislature is expected to take the bill up in the 2012 session.[19]

Retention pond wall collapses at Kingston plant in Tennessee

TVA ash spill in Harriman, TN on December 25, 2008. Photo courtesy of United Mountain Defense.

On December 22, 2008, a retention pond wall collapsed at TVA's Kingston plant in Harriman, TN, releasing a combination of water and fly ash that flooded 12 homes, spilled into nearby Watts Bar Lake, contaminated the Emory River, and caused a train wreck. Officials said 4 to 6 feet of material escaped from the pond to cover an estimated 400 acres of adjacent land. A train bringing coal to the plant became stuck when it was unable to stop before reaching the flooded tracks.[20] Hundreds of fish were floating dead downstream from the plant.[21] Water tests showed elevated levels of lead and thallium.[22]

Originally TVA estimated that 1.7 million cubic yards of waste had burst through the storage facility. Company officials said the pond had contained a total of about 2.6 million cubic yards of sludge. However, the company revised its estimates on December 26, when it released an aerial survey showing that 5.4 million cubic yards (1.09 billion gallons) of fly ash was released from the storage facility.[21] Several days later, the estimate was increased to over 1 billion gallons spilled.[23]

The TVA spill was 100 times larger than the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska, which released 10.9 billion gallons of crude oil.[24] Cleanup was expected to take weeks and cost tens of millions of dollars.[25]

The 40-acre pond was used to contain ash created by the coal-burning plant.[20] The water and ash that were released in the accident are filled with toxic substances. Each year coal preparation creates waste containing an estimated 13 tons of mercury, 3236 tons of arsenic, 189 tons of beryllium, 251 tons of cadmium, and 2754 tons of nickel, and 1098 tons of selenium.[26]

Report identifies causes of Kingston spill

A report released in late June 2009 identified the main factors contributing to the massive Kingston coal ash spill. TVA hired engineering firm AECOM to analyze the underlying causes of the spill. According to the report, the underlying layer of the coal ash sludge was unstable and went undiscovered for decades by previous TVA stability analyses. The "creep failure" of this layer and liquefaction of the ash triggered the spill. The report also identified other factors including the construction of terraced retaining walls on top of the wet ash, which narrowed the area for storing the ash and in turn increased the pressure exerted by the rising stacks. Engineer Bill Walton said these factors created a "perfect storm" leading to the Kingston disaster. AECOM's report discounted heavy rains and seismic activity as contributing causes.[27][28]

Inspector General accuses TVA of deliberately influencing report

On July 28, 2009, TVA's Inspector General Richard Moore released a report concluding that the agency had improperly directed AECOM's investigation into the causes of the Kingston spill in order to protect itself from lawsuits. Moore criticized the decision to allow TVA's attorneys to hire the consultant and narrow the report in a way that "predetermined the choice that would be made between accountability and litigation strategy." As a result, the report overemphasized an underlying layer of slimy ash as the trigger for the collapse, an explanation Moore said was intended to reduce the legal culpability and liability of TVA management. According to Moore, "it appears TVA management made a conscious decision to present to the public only facts that supported an absence of liability for TVA for the Kingston spill." The report also revealed internal agency memos about warnings that could have prevented the spill, and suggested that other TVA sites may be at risk of similar collapses.[29]

TVA consultants criticize ash storage operations

Also in July 2009, consultants McKenna Long and Aldridge of Atlanta released a report commissioned by TVA following the massive Kingston spill. The report cited widespread problems with how the federal utility deals with its coal ash storage, saying that the controls, systems, and corporate culture required for proper management of the coal ash sties at its power plants were not in place. According to the consultants, TVA had no standard operating or maintenance procedures prior to the spill and neglected to provide annual training for its safety inspectors.[30]

TVA vows to revamp coal ash operations

TVA vowed to revamp its systems and culture in response to the two studies identifying weaknesses in its coal ash storage operations. The Authority's board called for a plan to correct the deficiencies at all TVA coal ash impoundments, including restructuring the utility's procedures, standards, controls, and accountability.[31] At a July 28 congressional hearing on the Kingston spill, CEO Tom Kilgore testified, "We have to change, and if that means heads have to roll and people have to leave, then so be it."[29]

No bonuses for TVA executives

At a meeting on November 19, 2009, TVA's top executives were told not to expect performance bonuses because of the massive Kingston spill and a drop in electricity sales related to the economic downturn. In addition, about 3,300 other managers and specialists will not receive pay raises in fiscal year 2010. President and CEO Tom D. Kilgore said, "It was a year overshadowed by Kingston and the economic downturn." Kilgore received over $1 million in bonuses for fiscal 2008, and nine executives who report to him received $1.2 million. TVA directors will extend Kilgore's $300,000 annual retention bonus for another four years, but without bonuses Kilgore's compensation, which includes a base salary of $875,000, is still about 45 percent below the average for top utility executives.[32]

Duke University scientists report TVA spill is still a problem

In November 2010 a study published by Duke University scientists in peer-reviewed journal Environmental Science and Technology, documented contaminant levels in aquatic ecosystems over an 18-month period following the TVA coal ash spill in 2008.

By analyzing more than 220 water samples collected over the 18-month period, the Duke team found that high concentrations of arsenic from the TVA coal ash remained in the water trapped within river-bottom sediment — long after contaminant levels in surface waters dropped back below safe thresholds.

Samples extracted from 10 centimeters to half a meter below the surface of sediment in downstream rivers contained arsenic levels of up to 2,000 parts per billion — well above the EPA’s thresholds of 10 parts per billion for safe drinking water, and 150 parts per billion for protection of aquatic life.

The authors argued that these findings were evidence that coal ash waste ought to be designated a hazardous substance by the EPA. The research was funded by the National Science Foundation.[33]

January 2011: Judge opposes class action lawsuit against TVA

In January 2011, TVA won a court challenge against lawsuits from the utility's coal ash spill. A magistrate said no to plaintiff lawyers who asked to seek damages in a class action suit.

U.S. Magistrate Bruce Guyton recommended denying the class action status sought by attorneys for some of the 457 plaintiffs spread among about 50 current lawsuits, and for any others waiting to sue.

Since the spill the utility has negotiated buyouts of more than 170 properties and is continuing a cleanup that is projected to cost $1.2 billion.

"A class action is not superior to other available methods for fairly and efficiently adjudicating these cases," Guyton said in his recommendation.[34]

Public nuisance suit North Carolina v. TVA

On April 14, 2011, TVA and North Carolina ended a longstanding dispute over TVA's compliance with air pollution laws in its coal fired power plants. The consent decree was finalized on June 30, 2011. TVA agreed to phase out 18 units of its coal plants, adding up to 2,700 MW, and to install modern pollution controls on three dozen additional units.[35] The phase out includes two units at the John Sevier Fossil Plant, all 10 units at the Johnsonville Fossil Plant, both in Tennessee, and six units at the Widows Creek Fossil Plant in north Alabama.[36] Also as part of the EPA agreement, TVA agreed to invest an estimated $3 to $5 billion on pollution controls, invest $350 million on clean energy projects, and pay a civil penalty of $10 million.[37]

Citizen protest

Aug. 18, 2003: Blockade at Zeb Mountain

On August 18, 2003, the Rocky Top Trio affinity group locked into concrete-filled steel barrels, blocking the entrance to the Zeb Mountain mine in Tennessee. The three protesters, John Johnson, Dan Anderson, and Matthew Hamilton, were arrested and released that day. Near the mine on the same day, the Banner Busters affinity group climbed a nearby 150-foot billboard off Interstate 75 and hung a banner reading "Stop Mountaintop Removal."[38]

June 7, 2005: Protest and arrests at National Coal Corporation stockholders meeting

Activists disrupt National Coal Corporation's June 7, 2005 stockholders meeting.

On June 7, 2005, approximately 45 Mountain Justice Summer activists, some in animal costumes, surprised the first-ever shareholders meeting of Knoxville-based National Coal Corporation with a marching band, chants, drumming and noise makers. Demonstrators demanded that National Coal stop mountaintop removal mining and distributed informational flyers to shareholders. The sheriff and National Coal Corporation responded by assaulting protesters with pain compliance, choke holds and arrested three on bogus felony charges. [39]

August 15, 2005: Road blockade and arrests in at National Coal mine

On August 15, 2005, Earth First! and Mountain Justice Summer activists blockaded a road leading to National Coal's mountaintop removal coal mine in Campbell County, Tennessee. Activists stopped a car on the road, removed its tires, locked themselves to the vehicle, and erected a tripod with a person perched on top of it. National Coal workers arrived and threatened the protestors; one tried to ram the tripod with his car. Eleven people were arrested; the police treated the arrested activists very roughly, endangering their safety.[40][41]

July 20, 2008: Arrests at Zeb Mountain

In an act of civil disobedience, four citizen activists walked across a line designating National Coal Corporation's property at Zeb Mountain. The four were immediately arrested. July 20, 2008.

On July 20, 2008, residents from coal-impacted communities throughout Appalachia gathered for a march at Zeb Mountain, the largest surface coal mining site in Tennessee, to protest the environmentally destructive practice of mountaintop removal and surface coal mining. The march was organized by United Mountain Defense, Mountain Justice Summer, and Three Rivers Earth First! and included political theater, life-sized puppets and rousing speeches.[42]

In an act of civil disobedience, four citizen activists walked across a line marked with police tape designating National Coal Corporation's property. The four were immediately arrested without incidence and removed from the property by the Campbell County Sheriff's office.[43]

March 14, 2009: 14 Arrested at TVA headquarters in Knoxville, TN

Local residents joined dozens of activists from across the country in a demonstration at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s headquarters, which resulted in the arrest of 14 individuals, after participating in a "die in" in front of the building. This event was held in solidarity with communities affected by the destructive impacts of mountaintop removal coal mining and the survivors of the coal ash disaster in Harriman. The demonstration began with a rally in Market Square, where organizers from United Mountain Defense and Mountain Justice spoke about coal's impact from cradle to grave on communities in Appalachia and the surrounding area. The crowd then marched through downtown Knoxville and ended at TVA’s headquarters. At the end of the march people interested in participating in civil disobedience gave a statement as to why they wanted to take this action. With the support of a singing crowd each participant fell to the ground representing the deaths caused by the coal industry. After a few minutes Knoxville law enforcement informed the participants that they were blocking the sidewalk, and that they needed to remove themselves from the area. All 14 people were arrested, and cited for loitering.[44]

August 13, 2009: "Going Away Party" for National Coal Corporation in Knoxville, TV

Appalachia Rising - DC Day of Action.

An employee with National Coal Corporation forcefully removed a non-violent anti-mountaintop removal protester from the National Coal headquarters in West Knoxville. The protester was part of a group participating in “Love and Hug National Coal Month,” part of a series of protests organized by United Mountain Defense every Thursday in August at National Coal’s office. The protesters had organized a “Going Away Party” for NCC after the coal company defaulted on $60 million dollars of loans in Alabama in July 2009. To mark this event the protestors brought balloons and cupcakes reading “Bye National Coal’ and “Take a Hike”. Wearing party hats and dancing to festive music, the volunteers entered the National Coal Headquarters in order to deliver the cupcakes. Within 30 seconds an employee of National Coal Corporation wrapped his hand around the video camera, contorted the cameraman’s wrist and escorted the peaceful group back outside, at which point he stated that NCC did not want to call the police. The non-violent protesters complied with the National Coal employee’s request and moved to the public right of way in front of the office building. They educated passing motorists, gave away the unwanted cupcakes, danced, and had a fun time in the hot sun.[45][46]

June 6, 2012: 22 arrested today sitting in Congressional Offices to stop mountaintop removal

On June 6, 2012, 22 people were arrested at Congressional offices in Washington DC to protest mountaintop removal. Appalachia Rising reported the following arrests: "2 from Representative Duncan’s office in Tennessee, 6 from Rep. Griffith’s office in Virginia, 7 from Rep. Rahall’s office in West Virginia, and 7 from Rep. Rogers’ office in Kentucky. Nearly 4 dozen risked arrest."[47]

Coal Reports

Report finds coal cost TN taxpayers money in 2009

On June 22, 2010, environmental consulting firm Downstream Strategies and the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy issued a report, The Impact of Coal on the Tennessee State Budget analyzing Tenessee’s coal-related income and expenses, and concluded that the industry actually costs the state. After assessing nearly all of coal’s direct and indirect costs and benefits to the state, it concludes that coal mining provides relatively few jobs to Tennessee residents and contributes less revenue to the state budget than taxpayers pay in costs. In 2009, Tennessee collected $1.1 million in revenues from various taxes on the coal industry, representing less than 1 percent of total tax revenues. The study also looked at state expenditures related to the coal industry, such as revenue administration, environmental protection, maintenance and repair of roadways and others, and found the industry costs taxpayers around $1.6 million in state subsidies and expenses for mine regulation, reclamation, and road repairs, essentially costing state taxpayers money $500,000 in 2009. The study also found just 600 people were employed in coal mining in Tennessee in 2009, and that no county in Tennessee depends upon the coal industry for more than two percent of its total employment.[17]

A NewsChannel 5 investigation earlier in 2010 revealed that donors with interest in coal contributed more than $300,000 dollars to political campaigns in Tennessee since 2009.[17]

Tenn. area listed as endangered due to mountaintop removal

A 2011 report by the conservation organization Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) put Tennessee's northern Cumberland Plateau on its list of the 10 most endangered regions in the South for 2011, citing mountaintop removal coal mining in the Cumberland Mountains of East Tennessee as a threat to the region's natural resources, which include some of the most biologically diverse temperate zone forests in the world. Tennessee's endangered area encompasses an estimated 170,606 acres in the Cumberland Mountains of Scott, Morgan, Anderson and Campbell counties. In the summer of 2010, former Gov. Phil Bredesen signed a petition asking the U.S. Office of Surface Mining to designate the ridge tops on all the state-managed lands in the area unsuitable for surface coal mining. Though the state owns the surface rights, the Tennessee Valley Authority and private coal companies own the mineral rights. If agreed to, the petition would not affect underground mining and would not prevent coal companies from surfacing mining below the ridge tops.[48]

Of the 10 areas on this year's most endangered list, five areas are threatened by the impacts of energy production. Marie Hawthorne, the SELC's director of development, said that as the fastest-growing region of the U.S., the South has become a testing ground for decisions that weigh energy extraction and land development against long-term resource protection.[48]

2011 Study: Increased birth defects in MTR areas

In a 2011 Environmental Research journal study, "The association between mountaintop mining and birth defects among live births in central Appalachia, 1996–2003" investigators reported that children born in counties home to mountaintop coal mines had a 26% higher risk of suffering birth defects, compared to ones born in non-mining regions. (Nationwide, about 1 in 33 babies suffer a birth defect, the leading cause of infant deaths.)

A number of studies had found health risks associated with coal mining regions including low birth weight. Lead researcher Melissa Ahern, a health economist at Washington State University, and colleagues decided to look for health effects on infants across four states (West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia) where mountaintop removal mining occurs. Looking at the 1,889,071 births in those states from 1996 to 2003, the researchers first found birth defects were higher in six of seven categories (including heart, lung and gastrointestinal birth defects) in mountaintop mining counties compared to elsewhere. According to the study: "Rates for any anomaly were approximately 235 per 10,000 live births in the mountaintop mining area versus 144 per 10,000 live births in the non-mining area."

Since poverty has also been linked to birth defects, the researchers controlled for social factors, such as smoking, drinking, mother's education, race and other poverty-related factors, and the team found the effect was still statistically significant, leading to the 26% higher risk of birth defects in the mountaintop mining counties.

According to Ahern: "Circulatory and respiratory effects really stood out." The study stated that birth defect rate seemed to increase over time and in regions with more mountaintop removal.[49]

Coal lobbying groups

Coal power companies

  • Tennessee Valley Authority
    • Headquarters in Knoxville, TN
    • Owned by U.S. Federal Government
    • 4th biggest coal energy producer in U.S.
    • Controls 63 coal-fired generating stations with 17,647 MW total capacity

Proposed coal plants


Cumberland Coal-to-Liquids Plant, Cumberland County, TN


Chattanooga Project, Chattanooga, TN

Existing coal plants

Tennessee had 63 coal-fired generating units at 11 locations in 2005, with a total of 10,290 MW of capacity; this represents 44.8% of the state's electric generating capacity.[3][50][51]

Click on the locations shown on the Tennessee map for plant details:

97.4% of coal-fired generating capacity in the state is owned by the Tennessee Valley Authority. Here is a list of coal power plants in Tennessee with capacity over 400 MW:[3][52][53]

Plant Name County Owner Year(s) Built Capacity 2007 CO2 Emissions 2006 SO2 Emissions SO2/MW Rank
Cumberland Stewart Tennessee Valley Authority 1973 2600 MW 19,600,000 tons 18,352 tons 235
Kingston Roane Tennessee Valley Authority 1954, 1955 1700 MW 10,100,000 tons 55,473 tons 84
Johnsonville Humphreys Tennessee Valley Authority 1951, 1952, 1953, 1958, 1959 1485 MW 7,735,000 tons 86,793 tons 20
Gallatin Sumner Tennessee Valley Authority 1956, 1957, 1959 1255 MW 6,817,000 tons 23,459 tons 156
Allen Shelby Tennessee Valley Authority 1959 990 MW 4,811,000 tons 17,413 tons 148
Bull Run Anderson Tennessee Valley Authority 1967 950 MW 4,523,000 tons 27,987 tons 72
John Sevier Hawkins Tennessee Valley Authority 1955, 1956, 1957 800 MW 5,199,000 tons 30,126 tons 70

These seven plants represent 95.0% of Tennessee's coal energy generating capacity, 49.0% of the state's total CO2 emissions, and 34.4% of its total SO2 emissions.[5]

For a map of existing coal plants in the state, see the bottom of this page.

TVA and the Clean Air Act

In a 2001 lawsuit, the National Parks Conservation Association, the Sierra Club, and Our Children's Earth Foundation alleged that TVA had performed a major overhaul of the Bull Run boiler that involved replacing about 25 percent of the total tubing in the boiler at a cost of about $8 million. That would violate the Clean Air Act's New Source Review (NSR) provisions, which require modified facilities to install modern pollution controls.[54]

In April 2010, Judge Thomas Varlan of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee at Knoxville sided with TVA, saying the upgrades made at the Clinton, TN plant in 1988 constituted "routine maintenance, repair and replacement" and was therefore exempted from NSR requirements.[54]

The Clinton administration had also launched an enforcement case against TVA's fleet of 11 coal plants. But in 2003, TVA defeated the EPA allegations before the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta on both constitutional and administrative grounds. After that, then-U.S. Solicitor General Ted Olson tried an appeal of EPA's case to the U.S. Supreme Court, but his petition was denied in May 2004 without comment. The George W. Bush administration opted not to refile its claims against TVA in federal district court, and instead relaxed New Source Review provisions, leaving environmental and citizen groups to pursue their own challenges.[54]

Proposed Plant Retirements

TVA at the Crossroads, produced by Southern Alliance for Clean Energy

December 2009: TVA considering shutting down some aging coal plants

In August 2009, CEO Tom D. Kilgore announced that TVA was studying the possibility of closing its John Sevier Fossil Plant in Tennessee and the oldest six units at its Widows Creek Fossil Plant in Alabama. A federal judge has ordered TVA to install pollution equipment on the plants by the end of 2013, at an estimated cost of more than $1 billion. However, the company has not yet budgeted any money for the improvements. In 2010 TVA is planning to begin building an $820 million gas-powered plant to replace the generation at its John Servier Plant. The agency has already reduced power production from the oldest six units at Widows Creek. Environmental groups want TVA to shut down or convert to cleaner fuels the oldest and least efficient of its coal plants, including Widows Creek, John Sevier, and Johnsonville plants.[55]

August 2010: TVA Announces Plans to Retire 9 Coal-Fired Units

On August 24, 2010 TVA announced that it will retire 9 coal-fired generating units totaling about 1,000 megawatts of capacity at three locations beginning in fiscal year 2011: Shawnee Fossil Plant Unit 10 in Kentucky, John Sevier Fossil Plant Units 1 and 2 in Tennessee, and Widows Creek Fossil Plant Units 1-6 in Alabama. In addition TVA stated that it will going to eliminate 200 jobs at these plants starting in 2011, but the workers will be placed in other positions within TVA. CEO Tom D. Kilgore said that TVA would replace the sidelined coal power with greater reliance on nuclear power and energy efficiency.[56]

Coal Ash Waste


Tennessee generates over 3.2 million tons of coal ash per year, ranking 13th in the country for coal ash generation. There are 18 ponds at 8 plants. Three plants have been ranked "high hazard," meaning a loss of life would be expected were the pond to fail. Eleven ponds have been ranked as a "significant hazard," meaning a pond failure would cause significant economic loss and environmental and infrastructure damage.

Seventeen ponds are over 30 years old, and 12 of those are over 40 years old. The age of these ponds makes it unlikely that they have safeguards like liners and leachate collection systems.

EPA releases list of 44 "high hazard" coal ash dumps

To see the full list of coal ash dump sites, see Coal waste.
In response to demands from environmentalists as well as Senator Barbara Boxer (D-California), chair of the Senate Committee on the Environment and Public Works, the EPA made public a list of 44 "high hazard potential" coal waste dumps. The rating applies to sites at which a dam failure would most likely cause loss of human life, but does not include an assessment of the likelihood of such an event. No Tennessee or Tennessee Valley Authority-owned sites were included in the list, although according to Earthjustice attorney Lisa Evans, TVA was allowed to rank its own dams.[57][58]

Study finds groundwater contamination from coal ash

In August 2010 a study released by the Environmental Integrity Project, the Sierra Club and Earthjustice reported that Tennessee, along with 34 states, had significant groundwater contamination from coal ash that was not regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The report, in an attempt to pressure the EPA to regulate coal ash, noted that most states do not monitor drinking water contamination levels near waste disposal sites.[59] The report mentioned Tennessee's Cumberland Steam Plant, Gallatin Fossil Plant and Johnsonville Fossil Plant as three sites that have groundwater contamination due to coal ash waste.[60]

The 2011 report, "State of Failure: How
 Ash" by Earthjustice and Appalachian Mountain Advocates, looked at EPA data and found that state regulations are often inadequate for protecting public health. Tennessee has no set of rules that apply to the structural stability and safety of its coal ash dams, and no regulations on groundwater monitoring or protective liners, despite the $1 billion TVA coal ash disaster in 2008.[61]

Coal Ash Damage Cases in TN

Aside from the TVA disaster, the EPA has documented the following damage cases in TN:  U.S. Department of Energy – Oak Ridge Y-12 Plant Chestnut Ridge Operable Unit 2, Oak Ridge: Aluminum, arsenic, iron, and selenium contamination, as well as fish deformities and fish kills from coal ash releases.

Tennessee Valley AuthorityBull Run Fossil Plant, Oak Ridge: Exceedancess of aluminum, calcium, iron, and sulfate were detected in surface water and a toxicity study indicated the potential for ecological impacts. In addition, Earthjustice, Environmental Integrity and Sierra Club identified five additional sites where coal ash has been responsible for environmental contamination in Tennessee.

Tennessee Valley AuthorityJohn Sevier Fossil Plant. On-site groundwater contamination including exceedances of cadmium, aluminum, manganese, sulfate, and arsenic.

 Trans-Ash CCW Landfill, Ash from TVA– Johnsonville Fossil Plant. Off-site damage to groundwater and private residential water wells with mercury. Tenn. Dept. of Environment and Conservation had to connect a residence to the municipal water supply because the water had become un-potable.

Tennessee Valley AuthorityCumberland Steam Plant. On-site groundwater, which may spread into nearby drinking water sources, contains arsenic more than twice the MCL, selenium 3 times the MCL, and boron 13 times the Child Health Advisory level.

Tennessee Valley AuthorityGallatin Fossil Plant. An unlined ash pond contaminated groundwater with beryllium up to 6 times the MCL, cadmium, nickel exceeding the TN MCL by 2.5 times and boron over the Child Health Advisory. Concentrations of aluminum, iron, manganese, sulfate and TDS exceed SMCLs.

Tennessee Valley AuthorityJohnsonville Fossil Plant. An active ash disposal area resides on an unlined island in the middle of the Tennessee River. Groundwater on the island and at-on shore dumps contains arsenic, aluminum, boron, cadmium, chromium, iron, lead, manganese, molybdenum, sulfate and TDS far above federal MCLs, SMCLs, and federal health advisory levels. Disposal areas discharge into recreational waters of Tennessee River within a mile of New Johnsonville and Camden municipal water intake pipes.[62]

Study: Weak Coal Ash Regulations in Tennessee Highlight Need for Federal Law

There is no set of rules that apply to the structural stability and safety of Tennessee’s coal ash dams. While the state does have a comprehensive set of dam safety laws and regulations, it specifically exempts coal ash dams from its scope.

A report released in October 2010 by Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (SACE) and other environmental groups titled "State of Coal Ash Regulations in Tennessee" cited weak state regulations in Tennessee as an example of the need for federal reform regarding coal ash. As such, the report said regulation should not be left up to state governments: "Given that states like Tennessee have failed to accept regulatory responsibility for coal ash in the past, it is unwise to rely solely on states to ensure that electric generators safely dispose of their coal waste."[63]

In Tennessee, the report noted, two years after the TVA Kingston Fossil Plant coal ash spill, the largest industrial spill in U.S. history, the state had not beefed up laws to handle toxic waste from its coal-fired power plants: "Unfortunately, Tennessee has failed to become a leader in setting strong standards for coal ash disposal," the authors wrote.[63]

A 2010 review of 24 coal ash ponds at the Tennessee Valley Authority's coal-burning power plants found that only half of them meet the minimum criteria for stability. TVA has said they will change all their facilities from wet ash storage to dry ash storage by the end of 2019, at an estimated cost of between $1.5 billion to $2 billion.[64]

The state of Tennessee disputed the report and wrote in a press release that the study "was aimed at supporting the management of coal as a hazardous waste and SACE chose to attack the state's response to the Kingston ash spill as a means to make that case."[65]

Study finds dangerous level of hexavalent chromium at Tennessee coal waste sites

The study "EPA’s Blind Spot: Hexavalent Chromium in Coal Ash," released by EarthJustice and the Sierra Club in early February 2011, reported elevated levels of hexavalent chromium, a highly potent cancer-causing chemical, at several coal ash sites in Tennessee.[66] In all, the study cited 29 sites in 17 states where hexavalent chromium contamination was found. The information was gathered from existing EPA data on coal ash as well as from studies by EarthJustice, the Environmental Integrity Project, and the Sierra Club.[67][68][69][70] It included locations in Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, Massachusetts, North Carolina, North Dakota, Nevada, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia, and Wisconsin.[66]

According to the report, hexavalent chromium (Cr(VI)) was found at elevated levels at the following sites:[66]

  • TVA's Johnsonville Fossil Plant unlined coal ash pond at 620 ppb (parts per billion) - 31,000 times the proposed California drinking water goals and 6.2 times above the federal drinking water standard.
  • TVA's Kingston Fossil Plant's unlined coal waste pond at 100 ppb (parts per billion) - 5,000 times the proposed California drinking water goals and above the federal drinking water standard.
  • Trans-Ash's partially unlined coal waste pond in Camden above 100 ppb (parts per billion) - 5,000 times the proposed California drinking water goals and above the federal drinking water standard.

A press release about the report read:

Hexavalent chromium first made headlines after Erin Brockovich sued Pacific Gas & Electric because of poisoned drinking water from hexavalent chromium. Now new information indicates that the chemical has readily leaked from coal ash sites across the U.S. This is likely the tip of the iceberg because most coal ash dump sites are not adequately monitored.[71]

According to the report, the electric power industry is the leading source of chromium and chromium compounds released into the environment, representing 24 percent of releases by all industries in 2009.[66]

Derailed train dumps 1100 tons of coal next to New River

On January 9, 2009, a train operated by National Coal Corporation overturned and spilled around 1100 tons of coal next to the New River in Scott County, Tennessee. The spill was discovered three days later by Steve Bakaletz, a wildlife biologist with the National Park Service. According to Bakaletz, crews had been attempting to clean up the spill but had not yet completed by the time it was discovered. The New River supports two endangered species of fish.[72]

Coal mines

Click here for a list of coal mines in Tennessee. As of 2010 there were approximately 19 active coal mines in Tennessee with production of approximately 1,780 short tons per year.[73]

Citizen groups



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Existing coal plants in Tennessee

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