NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — A coalition of environmental groups is suing the Tennessee Valley Authority over its decision to continue operating a coal-burning power plant in Gallatin.
The TVA announced in August that it planned to spend $1 billion to retrofit the plant with scrubbers and other upgrades that will reduce harmful air pollution by up to 95 percent.
John Suttles, a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, said in a conference call Thursday that the coalition believes TVA's actions violate the National Environmental Policy Act. The utility disputes that claim.
The act requires federal agencies to take a hard look at the environmental impacts of proposed projects as well as potential alternatives. Among other things, it requires the utility to evaluate the environmental impact of doing nothing.
Suttles said TVA's "do nothing" alternative should have taken into account that the plant would be forced by a legal agreement to close in 2017. Instead, the TVA's evaluation considers the environmental impact of operating the plant in its current state indefinitely, something that would be illegal.
The suit also claims TVA did not consider alternatives such as promoting energy efficiency to offset the need for more power production or replacing the coal plant with a natural gas plant or a project that uses renewable energy. Instead, TVA's two alternatives considered two locations for the new pollutions controls.
Louise Gorenflo, a volunteer with the Tennessee Chapter of the Sierra Club, said the scrubbers may make the air cleaner, but the same toxins would instead go into the coal ash, which will be contained in giant landfills to be built in an area that is now a forested wildlife management area.
TVA issued a statement saying its evaluation of the Gallatin project is in compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act. The utility also said it extended the public comment period beyond what was required by law.
According to the statement, TVA's environmental assessment found the improvements to the plant would have no significant environmental impact "in large part because the new Gallatin air quality controls will result in significantly lower emissions and further improvement in Tennessee Valley air quality, which is currently cleaner than it has been in decades."
The utility is required to either shutter the plant or retrofit it after a 2011 agreement settled a lawsuit by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, three environmental groups and the states of Alabama, Kentucky, Tennessee and North Carolina. Those groups and states had claimed violations of the Clean Air Act.
The Tennessee Environmental Council, Tennessee Scenic Rivers Association, Sierra Club, and Center for Biological Diversity filed the suit over the Gallatin plant in federal court in Nashville on Thursday. They are asking the court to enjoin TVA from taking any further action to upgrade the Gallatin plant until the utility comes into compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act.
TVA is the nation's largest public utility, supplying power to about 9 million people in Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Kentucky, Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia.