Coal-fired power plants are the largest source of toxic water pollution in the United States based on toxicity, dumping billions of pounds of pollution into America’s rivers, lakes, and streams each year. The waste from coal plants, also known as coal combustion waste, includes coal ash and sludge from pollution controls called “scrubbers” that are notorious for contaminating ground and surface waters with toxic heavy metals and other pollutants. These pollutants, including lead and mercury, can be dangerous to humans and wreak havoc in our watersheds even in very small amounts. The toxic metals in this waste do not degrade over time and many bio-accumulate, increasing in concentration as they travel up the food chain, ultimately collecting in our bodies, and the bodies of our children.
Our review of 386 coal-fired power plants across the country demonstrates that the Clean Water Act has been almost universally ignored by power companies and permitting agencies. Our survey is based on the EPA’s Enforcement and Compliance History Online (ECHO) database and our review of discharge permits for coal-fired power plants. For each plant, we reviewed permit and monitoring requirements for arsenic, boron, cadmium, lead, mercury, and selenium; the health of the receiving water; and the permit’s expiration date.