Facts and History: Pollution from Coal Ash Dumps


  • About 500 power plants in the U.S. burn over a billion tons of coal each year. [1] [2]
  • These plants generate about 140 million tons of waste annually, including fly ash, bottom ash, and scrubber sludge.[3]
  • There are 1,425 ash waste disposal sites in 37 states.[4]
  • Wastewater from coal ash landfills and ponds seeps into groundwater, streams, rivers, and lakes; and sometimes is released directly into waterways.[5] This wastewater is loaded with toxic pollutants such as boron (which can cause low birth weight and reproductive problems), arsenic (a carcinogen and neurotoxin), chromium (which can cause cancer), cobalt (which has been linked to health effects on the heart, blood, and thyroid gland), lead and mercury (which can cause brain and nervous system damage), selenium (toxic to aquatic life, and, at high concentrations, to humans), and sulfate (which can cause diarrhea, a major health concern for infants).[6]
  • The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has acknowledged that 133[7]  ash dumps and impoundments across the country have contaminated nearby waters, some of which are used by local communities for drinking water.
  • No federal regulations exist for managing this coal waste.   Long-delayed federal rules for containing waste at coal ash dumps are expected in December.
  • EPA has determined that “exposure to combustion wastewater has been associated with fish kills, reductions in the growth and survival of aquatic organisms, behavioral and physiological effects in wildlife and aquatic organisms, and changes to the local habitat.  As well as directly…contaminating drinking water wells.”[8]
  • The National Academy of Sciences concluded this about ash waste:  “Contamination of surface waters (at multiple coal ash landfills) has resulted in considerable environmental impacts; in the most extreme cases, multiple species have experienced local extinctions.”[9]
  • According to EPA, there are at least 1,070 ponds across the U.S. holding coal ash in a liquid form (mixed with water).[10]  These ponds can rupture and spill tons of coal ash into rivers and lakes, causing serious damage to the environment.[11]
  • Since 2002, seven major ash spills have happened at six different coal plants across the country: Plant Bowen, in Georgia;[12] Martins Creek Station, in Pennsylvania;[13] Oak Creek Plant, in Wisconsin;[14] Eagle Valley Generating Station, in Martinsville, Indiana (two dam breaks);[15] the Kingston Fossil Plant, in Tennessee;[16] and the Dan River Steam Station, in North Carolina.[17]
  • In 2008, a dam on a coal ash pond in Kingston, Tennessee, ruptured,[18] spilling 5.4 million cubic yards of waste into the Emory River, and forcing the evacuation of 22 homes in one of the largest environmental disasters in U.S. history.[19] In February 2014, a Duke Energy coal waste pond in North Carolina spewed 39,000 tons of ash into the Dan River.[20]
  • The Environmental Integrity Project and allies in 2012 filed notice of a lawsuit against the owners of the largest coal ash waste pond in the country, the Little Blue Run Ash Impoundment northwest of Pittsburgh, next to the Ohio River.  In response, Pennsylvania in February 2014 ordered FirstEnergy Generation to post a $169 million bond to close and clean up the leaking facility.[21]

[1] As of 2012.  Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration,   Count of Electric Power Industry Power Plants, by Sector, by Predominant Energy Sources within Plant, 2002 through 2012. http://www.eia.gov/electricity/annual/html/epa_04_01.html

[2] Earthjustice, The Coal Ash Problemhttp://earthjustice.org/features/the-coal-ash-problem

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Office of Water, Environmental Assessment for the Proposed Effluent Limitations Guidelines and Standards for the Steam Electric Power Generating Point Source Category (EPA-821-R-13-003) 3-3 – 3-11 (April 2013), available at http://water.epa.gov/scitech/wastetech/guide/steam-electric/upload/Steam-Electric_EA_Proposed-rule_2013.pdf.

[6] Boron: U.S. EPA, Toxicological Review of Boron and Compounds (June 2004).  Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry , Toxicological Profile for Boron (November 2010). Arsenic: U.S. EPA, Integrated Risk Information System, Inorganic Arsenic, http://www.epa.gov/iris/subst/0278.htm. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, Toxicological Profile for Arsenic (August 2007). Chromium: California EPA, Public Health Goal for Hexavalent Chromium in Drinking Water (July 2011). Cobalt: ATSDR, Toxicological Profile for Cobalt (Apr. 2004). Lead: ATSDR, Toxicological Profile for Cobalt (Aug. 2007). Mercury: ATSDR, Toxicological Profile for Cobalt (March 1999). Selenium: See note 5 above. Sulfate: U.S. EPA, Drinking Water Advisory: Consumer Acceptability Advice and Health Effects Analysis on Sulfate (Feb. 2003).

[7] U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Final Determination of Identified Proven Damage and Recently Alleged Damage Cases [DCN SE01966], Docket No. EPA-HQ-OW-2009-0819-2212.

[8] See note 5 at 5-1.

[9] National Academy of Sciences, National Research Council, Managing Coal Combustion Waste in Mines, 2006, page 86. http://www.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=11592.

[10] 78 Fed. Reg. 34,432, 34,516 (June 7, 2013).

[11] See note 5.

[12] 75 Fed. Reg. 35,128, 35,237 (June 21, 2010).

[13] 75 Fed. Reg. at 35,238.

[14] See The Center for Public Integrity, Coal Ash Spills into Lake Michigan After Bluff Collapse, November 1, 2011.

[15] See U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Coal Combustion Residuals Impoundment Assessment Reports: Summary Table for Impoundment Reports, (July 19, 2013), available at http://www.epa.gov/osw/nonhaz/industrial/special/fossil/surveys2/.

[16] 78 Fed. Reg. at 34,466.

[17] The New York Times, Ash Spill Shows How Watchdog Was Defanged, February 28, 2014.

[18] EPA, Response to the TVA Kingston Fossil Plant Fly Ash Release, 2008. http://www.epa.gov/region4/kingston/basic.html.

[19] Tennessee Department of Health, Public Health, Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) Kingston Fossil Plant Coal Ash Release, 714 Swan Pond Road.  http://health.state.tn.us/Environmental/PDFs/pha-e-TVA_Kingston_Fossil_Plant_Final.pdf

[20] See note 17.

[21] Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, DEP Issues Permit Requiring Closure of FirstEnergy’s Little Blue Run Impoundment, April 3. 2014. http://www.portal.state.pa.us/portal/server.pt/community/newsroom/14287?id=20442&typeid=1