Coal Ash Fears Resurface with Proposed Landfill Near Big South Fork

Residents of Scott County and environmental groups across the state are voicing opposition to an application to build a 24-acre landfill upstream from the Big South Fork Recreation Area, a unit of the National Park Service.

The permit for the facility—known as Roberta Phase II and to be located four miles north of Oneida, just off U.S. 27 near the Tennessee-Kentucky border—is now being reviewed by the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation. If granted, 0.87 acres of wetland, 1,417 linear feet of stream, and 506 linear feet of wet-weather conveyances, or ephemeral water channels, would be filled in, and the Class I facility would be capable of receiving domestic, commercial, industrial, and special wastes, with the possibility of accepting coal ash, a byproduct of coal-fired power production that contains arsenic, cadmium, and mercury, among other metals.

Along with broad concerns about protecting habitat, drinking water, and eco-tourism, the possibility that the landfill would accept coal ash presents a particular concern for residents and conservationists alike. They worry the site's proximity to the Kingston Steam Plant—just 60 miles down Route 27—will make it a prime location for coal-ash disposal. Meanwhile, they say its proximity to rivers and streams could lead to that ash leaching into the Big South Fork of the Cumberland River—a drinking source for communities across Tennessee and into Kentucky, as well as a significant regional attraction.

"I know that we make waste and that waste has to be disposed of somewhere," Trent Ganstine, president of the Tennessee Scenic Rivers Association, says. "But it just doesn't seem like we have to dispose of it in a creek bed that flows directly into a river that cuts through two different states and God knows how many million people's backyards."

Since TVA's coal ash spill in late 2008, there has been pressure on the Environmental Protection Agency to reclassify coal ash as hazardous waste, prohibiting its placement in Class I landfills like the one being proposed; however, the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, part of the White House's Office of Management and Budget, has held up the decision since mid-October, forcing the EPA to miss its December 2009 deadline for a decision. During that period, the OIRA has met with more than 20 coal and ash industry groups, leading some to suspect the White House is caving to pressure from companies that do not want to bear the higher costs of managing a hazardous waste, and which could retaliate by threatening Obama's climate legislation.

But the proposed landfill in Scott County illustrates one toll the uncertainty is taking. In November, the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency asked TDEC to prohibit the disposal of coal ash at this site until a new state and federal framework has been established, but with no assurance as to when that would happen or what will be the outcome, TDEC has little choice but to move forward under the current state-regulatory framework.

"This is about coal ash. It has already been brought in and people are upset. I do not doubt more is on the way," writes Scott County resident Andi Morrow, who started a Facebook group to protest locating coal ash in one of the county's current landfills and developing Roberta Phase II, in an e-mail. "Even if another load of coal ash is never brought in, this is about a rural area not wanting to be someone else's dumping site."

The ash Morrow's referring to is five loads she says were trucked in to Roberta Phase I, now Volunteer Regional Landfill, though TDEC says this never happened. Last year, that landfill, which sits next to the site of the proposed Roberta Phase II, was selected by TDEC as one of four landfills to test limited disposal of ash from the 2008 spill, but TDEC spokeswoman Tisha Calabrese-Benton says the test runs never actually occurred.

TVA spokeswoman Barbara Martocci confirms TVA has not dumped any ash in Scott County. She says the county's current landfill, Volunteer Regional Landfill, is a candidate for ash disposal, but "because it does not have rail access, it is not high on our list." That would apply to a second landfill, too.

Because the Roberta Phase II site involves a wetland, both a solid-waste application and water-quality application must be approved for the proposal to move forward. The water-quality permit, which mentioned coal ash specifically as a material it might accept, is now under review by TDEC, but Calabrese-Benton says "the bottom line is that even if the water-quality permit is ultimately granted, it does not give permission to dispose of coal ash." That, she says, would require an additional permit down the road.

Meanwhile, the comment period for the solid-waste application, originally scheduled to close in late December, has been extended until April 5 because of the volume of comments received. TDEC has already tentatively approved the solid-waste application, and only technical issues would prevent it moving forward. Permit applicant Johnny King could not be reached for comment.

Renee Hoyos, executive director of the Tennessee Clean Water Network, says TDEC doesn't often deny applications, and she doesn't expect any different here. But, she adds, she would like to see more stringent guidelines placed on what the landfill can discharge and what it is required to monitor. She also wonders about the ability of the Oneida Wastewater Treatment plant to deal with leachate from the landfill.

In fact, Oneida Wastewater operations manager Greg Overton says his facility is already overburdened as it is. He says he's informed Volunteer Regional Landfill management that his facility could no longer treat the dump's wastewater until its ammonia levels, now two to three times higher than the acceptable range, decrease. But Overton adds there are many variables that could allow Oneida to resume treatment of Volunteer Regional Landfill's leachate and take on wastewater from Roberta Phase II, such as pretreating the leachate and fluctuations in demand from other industries. According to TDEC, it is common for landfills to change wastewater treatment facilities as the characteristics of the leachate itself change.

The facility would provide some economic activity to a county with an unemployment rate above 18 percent, one of the highest in the state. Scott County Mayor Rick Keeton expects that number to climb to over 22 percent rate in April, when Armstrong Flooring, a key plant in town, idles and leaves 260 more people without work. He expects the landfill to create only 15 full-time jobs, at best, and says it might provide free trash service to county residents.

"Are there other benefits? Probably not," Keeton says, adding that local government has no power to stop the landfill from moving forward. In a twist of fate, the idling of the Armstrong plant could provide Oneida Wastewater some of the extra capacity it needs to take on the additional landfill leachate.

There's still a question as to whether this constitutes the full extent of the project or merely its first phase. Roberta Phase II Inc. owns 308 acres at the site in question, and some openly wonder why it would go through the hassle and cost of a permitting process and engineering schematics for just 24 acres that are expected to be exhausted in less than three years. Ganstine, of the Tennessee Scenic Rivers Association, suspects the timing, size, and location point to a larger landfill than the one now being proposed.