To see a nationwide list of over 350 coal waste sites in the United States, click here. To see a listing of coal waste sites in a particular state, click on the map:
- 1 Overview
- 2 Forms of waste from coal mining and combustion
- 3 Accidents and contamination
- 3.1 Report finds increased coal ash air pollution regulations results in increased water pollution
- 3.2 Study shows all coal ash ponds in N.C. are contaminating groundwater
- 3.3 Virginia residents file $1 billion suit against Dominion over fly ash site
- 3.4 4,000 gallons of sludge spill in Maryland
- 3.5 Coal ash pile in Orange County, FL may be leaking radioactivity
- 3.6 Scientific American finds coal ash is more radioactive than nuclear waste
- 3.7 Coal waste spill at TVA's Widows Creek plant in Alabama
- 3.8 Retention pond wall collapses at TVA's Kingston plant in Tennessee
- 3.9 Drinking water contamination in Maryland
- 3.10 Massey Coal spill in Martin County, Kentucky
- 3.11 Spill by Pioneer Fuels in West Virginia
- 3.12 Study finds that Bush Administration concealed cancer risk from coal ash waste sites
- 3.13 EIP report says Pennsylvania coal ash dump is not adequately protected against groundwater contamination
- 3.14 Coal ash to melt ice
- 3.15 Duke University scientists report TVA spill is still a problem
- 3.16 Drinking water contaminated with hexavalent chromium from coal may cause cancer
- 3.17 TVA plants leaching contaminants into groundwater in 2011 report
- 3.18 Oak Creek Power Plant floods coal ash into Lake Michigan
- 4 EPA data show coal ash problem worse than previously reported
- 5 Environmental groups demand release of list of 44 high risk coal waste sites
- 6 EPA releases list of 44 "high hazard" coal ash dumps
- 7 2010: Reports identify more "damage case" coal waste sites
- 8 Coal waste regulation
- 8.1 Current bills
- 8.2 EPA considers regulating coal ash
- 8.3 Regulations delayed
- 8.4 Alabama Proposes Coal Ash Regulation
- 8.5 Office of Inspector General Investigates EPA's 'Partnership' with Coal Industry
- 8.6 Coal Ash Industry-EPA Interference
- 8.7 Western Governors Say States Should Regulate Coal Ash
- 8.8 South Carolina Coal Waste Permit Issues
- 8.9 EPA Proposes Competing Approaches To Regulate Coal-Ash Waste
- 8.10 Investors urge EPA action
- 8.11 Public Meetings Held on Proposed Coal Ash Regulation
- 8.12 Study: Weak Coal Ash Regulations in Tennessee Highlight Need for Federal Law
- 8.13 Coal lobbyists wooed White House staff to influence coal ash regulations
- 8.14 Enviros criticize EPA analysis on coal ash
- 8.15 House Committee votes to bar regulation as hazardous waste
- 8.16 Scientists at Duke University find environmental monitoring methods for coal ash lacking
- 8.17 Labeling coal waste "hazardous" could motivate coal plants to minimize waste dumps
- 8.18 Keystone, Coal Ash Dropped From Highway Bill
- 9 Coal waste lawsuits
- 9.1 Maryland $54 million fly ash groundwater contamination class action settlement
- 9.2 Virginia Battlefield Golf Club $1 billion suit against Dominion
- 9.3 Lawsuit over dry ash disposal site in Maryland
- 9.4 Environmental groups sue EPA for release of confidential information
- 9.5 Dominican Republic toxic coal ash birth defects case
- 9.6 Environmental Groups to Sue EPA over Coal Ash
- 10 Coal waste ponds in the United States
- 11 Coal waste and environmental justice
- 12 Shareholder resolutions on coal waste
- 13 Coal waste research organizations
- 14 Other uses for coal combustion waste
- 15 Resources
Coal mining and coal combustion in power plants produce several types of wastes:
- The mining process itself produces waste coal or solid mining refuse, which is a mixture of coal and rock.
- The mining process also produces liquid coal waste, which is then stored in impoundments.
- Pollution control equipment used for coal combustion produces coal ash or fly ash, as well as flue-gas desulfurization (FGD), a wet solid residue created by sulfur dioxide scrubbers.
Forms of waste from coal mining and combustion
According to the Department of Energy, waste coal is "Usable material that is a byproduct of previous coal processing operations. Waste coal is usually composed of mixed coal, soil, and rock (mine waste). Most waste coal is burned as-is in unconventional fluidized-bed combustors. For some uses, waste coal may be partially cleaned by removing some extraneous noncombustible constituents. Examples of waste coal include fine coal, coal obtained from a refuse bank or slurry dam, anthracite culm, bituminous gob, and lignite waste." Waste coal is referred to as "culm" in the Eastern Pennsylvania anthracite fields and as "gob" or "boney" in the bituminous coal mining regions.
Liquid coal waste
Before burning, coal is crushed and washed, creating waste water filled with toxins. Another form of liquid coal waste is acidic mine runoff. Both forms of liquid coal waste are disposed of in a landfill at the mine site. Each year coal preparation creates waste water 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.
Coal ash and scrubber sludge
The 1.05 billion tons of coal burned each year in the United States contain 109 tons of mercury, 7884 tons of arsenic, 1167 tons of beryllium, 750 tons of cadmium, 8810 tons of chromium, 9339 tons of nickel, and 2587 tons of selenium. On top of emitting 1.9 billion tons of carbon dioxide each year, coal-fired power plants in the United States also create 120 million tons of toxic waste. That means each of the nation's 500 coal-fired power plants produces an average 240,000 tons of toxic waste each year. A power plant that operates for 40 years will leave behind 9.6 million tons of toxic waste.
This coal combustion waste (CCW) constitutes the nation's second largest waste stream after municipal solid waste.
When coal is burned, toxins in the coal are released into the smokestack. With modern air pollution controls, airborne toxins are captured through filtration systems before they can become airborne, and contained in a fine ash called coal ash, fly ash, or coal combustion waste. As a result, heavy metals such as mercury are concentrated in what the EPA considers "recycled air pollution control residue."
Coal ash contains large quantities of toxic metals, including 44 tons of mercury, 4601 tons of arsenic, 970 tons of beryllium, 496 tons of cadmium, 6275 tons of chromium, 6533 tons of nickel, and 1305 tons of selenium. In 2006, coal plants in the United States produced almost 72 million tons of fly ash, up 50 percent since 1993.
Sulfur dioxide scrubbers also create coal waste. The flue-gas desulfurization (FGD) process creates a wet solid residue containing calcium sulfite (CaSO3) and calcium sulfate (CaSO4). Often dry material such as fly ash is added to stabilize the sludge for transport and landfill storage.
Most often coal waste is disposed of in landfills or "surface impoundments," which are lined with compacted clay soil, a plastic sheet, or both. As rain filters through the toxic ash pits year after year, the toxic metals are leached out and pushed downward by gravity towards the lining and the soil below. An EPA study found that all liners eventually degrade, crack or tear, meaning that all landfills eventually leak and release their toxins into the local environment. In a best case scenario, the EPA study determined that a 10-acre landfill would leak 0.2 to 10 gallons per day, or between 730 and 36,500 gallons over a ten-year period, an amount guaranteed to infiltrate the drinking water supply.
On February 24, 2010 Environmental Integrity Project and Earthjustice released a report that indicated that at least 31 “new damage cases” were not listed by the EPA in its end of 2010 tally that included 70 coal-ash pollution sites. Coal ash-waste ponds and coal waste landfills are leaching toxins into streams and drinking water, the report noted. As reported in the Christian Science Monitor:
- The groups identified the sites by assembling contamination data from state files using “similar criteria” to those sites the EPA had already identified, the report says. Arsenic, selenium, and boron were among the dangerous chemicals found to have “migrated off” nearly half of the 31 sites where coal-fired power plants store their coal ash...
- The 31 identified sites are spread across 14 states, including Delaware (1), Florida (3), Illinois (1), Indiana (2), Maryland (1), Michigan (1), Montana (1), Nevada (1), New Mexico (1), North Carolina (6), Pennsylvania (6), South Carolina (3), Tennessee (2), and West Virginia (2).
The report concluded that the EPA must regulate coal ash waste in order to protect the public and the environment from the negative effects of coal waste.
Accidents and contamination
Report finds increased coal ash air pollution regulations results in increased water pollution
"Much power plant waste once went into the sky, but because of toughened air pollution laws, it now often goes into lakes and rivers, or into landfills that have leaked into nearby groundwater, say regulators and environmentalists... Some regulators have used laws like the Clean Water Act to combat such pollution. But those laws can prove inadequate, say regulators, because they do not mandate limits on the most dangerous chemicals in power plant waste, like arsenic and lead." Ninety percent of coal plants the EPA found in violation of the Clean Water Act since 2004 have not been fined or sanctioned in any way. Lobbyists and some politicians blocked the EPA from creating stricter regulations for power plant waste in 2000. Campaign finance reports from 2008 show power companies donated $20 million to campaigns of both Democratic and Republican lawmakers.
2009 New York Times map of Coal Fired Power Plant regulation violators and their sanctions: "Water Polluters Near You: Coal-Fired Power Plants"
Study shows all coal ash ponds in N.C. are contaminating groundwater
In October 2009, Appalachian Voices released an analysis of monitoring data from coal waste ponds at 13 coal plants in North Carolina. The study revealed that all of them are contaminating ground water with toxic pollutants, in some cases with over 350 times the allowable levels according to state standards. The contaminants include the toxic metals arsenic, cadmium, chromium, and lead, which can cause cancer and neurological disorders. The study was based on data submitted by Duke Energy and Progress Energy to state regulators. The N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources is attempting to confirm the results before determining whether current state law can mandate corrective action.
Virginia residents file $1 billion suit against Dominion over fly ash site
In March 2009, attorneys representing almost 400 residents who live near Battlefield Golf Club in Virginia filed a lawsuit in Chesapeake Circuit Court, seeking over $1 billion in damages. The suit claims that Dominion Virginia Power sent fly ash to the site, ignoring a consultant's determination that the ash would leach harmful elements into the local drinking water supply. The lawsuit names as defendants Dominion, course developer CPM Virginia LLC, and VFL Technology Corp., Dominion's coal-ash management consultant. The suit accuses the companies of committing conspiracy and fraud, battery, negligence, infliction of emotional distress, and the creation of a nuisance. The resident's attorneys are demanding the removal of all fly ash from the site; the cleaning of the aquifer and installation of public water and sewer service; compensation for personal injury and decreased property values; and the creation of a fund for treatment costs and health monitoring.
4,000 gallons of sludge spill in Maryland
In March 2009, a 4,000-gallon spill of coal ash sludge spilled in Luke, Maryland, but did not seem to have reached the Potomac River. Most of the sludge spilled onto the West Virginia river bank, about 210 miles upstream from Washington, D.C. The sludge caused some discoloration of the river, but there were no signs of harm to fish or drinking water supplies. NewPage Corp., a paper manufacturer that owns the ash pipeline, had five days to tell the Maryland Department of the Environment how it would prevent future spills. The agency may fine the company.
Coal ash pile in Orange County, FL may be leaking radioactivity
The Florida EPA is expected to ask the Orlando Utilities Commission to investigate the ash pile from its coal plant in eastern Orange County in early 2009. Officials believe the landfill is leaking radioactivity into a shallow underground aquifer. If the uranium and radium found in the coal combustion waste is causing elevated radioactivity in groundwater, it would be a sign that the liner is failing. Authorities say there is no immediate threat to local residents. The ash pile is 70-feet tall and holds several million tons of coal waste.
Scientific American finds coal ash is more radioactive than nuclear waste
Although nuclear power retains the stigma of producing dangerous radiation, "waste produced by coal plants is actually more radioactive than that generated by their nuclear counterparts" in addition to known problems such as polluting the air and causing acid rain. Coal contains small amounts of uranium and thorium, which are concentrated "up to 10 times" in coal ash, a waste product of burning coal. Coal ash can leech radioactivity into the surrounding groundwater and soil, depending on where it is disposed. Robert Finkelman, a former US Geological Survey (USGS) researcher, said that people living around coal plants will increase the amount of radiation they are exposed to by 5% every year. Finkelman thinks that radiation is "more of an occupational hazard than a general environmental hazard... The miners are surrounded by rocks and sloshing through ground water that is exuding radon." This is an additional reason some people support alternative forms of energy.
Coal waste spill at TVA's Widows Creek plant in Alabama
On January 9, 2009, Tennessee Valley Authority confirmed another coal waste spill at its Widows Creek plant in northeast Alabama, less than three weeks after the enormous Tennessee coal ash spill at TVA's Kingston Fossil Plant. The spill, which TVA said originated from a gypsum treatment operation, released about 10,000 gallons of toxic gypsum material, some of which spilled into Widows Creek and the nearby Tennessee River.
Gypsum ponds contain limestone spray from smokestack scrubbers, which trap sulfur dioxide emissions before they are released into the air and turn them into sludge and solid waste. According to a TVA statement, the spill occurred at 6 AM when a cap dislodged from a 30-inch standpipe, releasing material from the gypsum pond into a settling pond, which then reached capacity and overflowed.
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. Hundreds of fish were floating dead downstream from the plant. Water tests showed elevated levels of lead and thallium.
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. Several days later, the estimate was increased to over 1 billion gallons spilled.
The TVA spill was 100 times larger than the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska, which released 10.9 million gallons of crude oil. Cleanup was expected to take weeks and cost tens of millions of dollars.
Drinking water contamination in Maryland
In November 2007, a group of Gambrills, Maryland residents living near a former sand and gravel mine filed a class action lawsuit against Constellation Energy over contamination of their drinking water. For twelve years prior, Constellation had dumped billions of tons of waste ash from its Brandone Shores coal-fired power plant into an unlined mine pit. County tests found that 23 wells in the area had been contaminated with metals such as arsenic, cadmium and thallium, all components fly ash.
In October 2008, the group reached a settlement with Constellation. Circuit Court Judge Alfred Nance approved the estimated $54 million settlement in December 2008. The settlement requires that Constellation connect 84 households to public water, create two trust funds to compensate affected property owners, restore the former quarry site, and cease all future deliveries of coal ash to the site.
Massey Coal spill in Martin County, Kentucky
On October 11, 2000, 250 million gallons of coal-mining sludge burst through the bottom of Massey Coal's 72-acre, 2.2-billion-gallon waste lagoon into Coldwater Creek in eastern Kentucky. The sludge smashed through concrete seals the company had built to contain a spill, then burst out two mine entries and into nearby creeks. The spill swamped lawns along the six miles of the Coldwater Creek, coated the banks and bottom of Coldwater and neighboring Wolf Creek to thicknesses of up to six feet, and suffocated aquatic life, including salamanders, frogs, fish and turtles. Biologists said every fish in the creeks was killed, and many in the Big Sandy River died as well. The Kentucky Division of Fish and Wildlife Resources estimated that a total of 1.6 million fish were killed. Martin County Coal, a subsidiary of Massey Energy, paid the state of Kentucky $3.25 million in damages. along with $225,000 to restock streams with tens of thousands of fish. 
The spill was over 20 times the size of the Exxon Valdez's oil spill in Alaska. Five years later, despite a $46 million cleanup, lawsuits claimed that sludge remained in the soil. More than 400 people who took part in lawsuits against the coal company reached out-of-court settlements and agreed not to disclose the terms.
Spill by Pioneer Fuels in West Virginia
On February 23, 2010 it was announced that Pioneer Fuel Corporation's Horse Creek Surface Mine spilled into the Clear Fork River in West Virginia. On February 25 the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection issued a notice of violation for the spill, which took place in Raleigh County. The Department issued a similar violation in 2007 for a spill by the company.
Study finds that Bush Administration concealed cancer risk from coal ash waste sites
In May 2009, the Environmental Integrity Project and Earthjustice released a report finding that the Bush Administration failed to release information suggesting an alarmingly high cancer threat for people who live near coal ash waste dumps. According to the study, the Bush Administration only made a portion of the data available, hiding the true extent of the health risks associated with coal ash disposal sites.
In 2002, an EPA study showed significant risk of coal ash sumps, but requests for the data under the Freedom of Information Act were either denied or given documents with the estimates of cancer risk blacked out. A 2007 EPA assessment report found that people living near coal ash dump sites have as high as a 1 in 50 chance of getting cancer from drinking water contaminated by arsenic. It also determined that living near such dump sites raises an individual's risk of liver, kidney, lungs and other organ damage resulting from exposure to toxic metals in the ash.
The full EIP study can be found here.
EIP report says Pennsylvania coal ash dump is not adequately protected against groundwater contamination
The May 2009 study released by the Environmental Integrity Project (EIP) and Earthjustice said that a 15-acre coal ash dump in Upper Mount Bethel Township, PA was not properly lined and did not have adequate controls to prevent groundwater contamination. The dump contains coal ash from the 427-megawatt Portland Generating Station, owned by RRI Energy. The report comes from previously unreleased data collected by the Environmental Protection Agency.
Upper Mount Bethel Township Supervisor Judith Henckel said the power company needs to do more on environmental clean up.
Coal ash to melt ice
On February 18, 2010 the Nebraska Emergency Management Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began using coal ash to melt the thick ice on the Platte River in Omaha, Nebraska, in an attempt to prevent ice jams and severe flooding. Bruce Nilles of the Sierra Club notes "This strikes us as a strange and dangerous move – one community is going to add coal ash to their water while many others are worried about how it will affect their water supplies." It is also argued that this use could continue as long as coal ash is not regulated by the EPA.
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.
Drinking water contaminated with hexavalent chromium from coal may cause cancer
A report released by Earthjustice and the Sierra Club in early February 2011 stated that there are many health threats associated a toxic cancer-causing chemical found in coal ash waste called hexavalent chromium. The report specifically cited 29 sites in 17 states where the contamination was found. The information was gathered from existing EPA data on coal ash and included locations in Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, Massachusetts, North Carolina, North Dakota, Nevada, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virgina and Wisconsin.
As 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.
TVA plants leaching contaminants into groundwater in 2011 report
"The inspector general of the Tennessee Valley Authority... found groundwater contaminants leaching out of coal ash dumps at eight of the nine plants being monitored."
- TVA's Groundwater Monitoring at Coal Combustion Products Disposal Areas: The Full Report
Oak Creek Power Plant floods coal ash into Lake Michigan
On October 31, 2011 following a landslide, coal ash from Wisconsin Energy's Oak Creek Power Plant in Wisconsin spilled directly into Lake Michigan. About 2,500 cubic yards of ash reportedly reached the water. It was reported on November 9, 2011 that the Sierra Club was suing Wisconsin Energy, alleging the spill will "pose an imminent and substantial endangerment to human health and the environment."
EPA data show coal ash problem worse than previously reported
On June 27, 2012 the EPA released information revealing the existence of hundreds of previously unknown coal ash dumps across the country. The information was released after the Environmental Integrity Project and Earthjustice filed a Freedom of Information Act request (FOIA).
The data revealed there are at least 451 more coal ash ponds than previously acknowledged by the agency. Previously the EPA admitted there were 710 ponds that existed, however, the new numbers the FOIA request revealed increased that total to 1,161. Additionally, the EPA had previously not stated how many ponds were unlined. The data released indicated that at least 535 ponds currently operate without a liner to prevent hazardous chemicals from reaching drinking water sources.
Environmental groups demand release of list of 44 high risk coal waste sites
In June 2009, Sierra Club, Earthjustice, the Environmental Integrity Project, and the NRDC filed a Freedom of Information Act request to gain access to a list of 44 coal ash disposal sites that EPA has classified as "high hazard." EPA has thus far refused to disclose which of the hundreds of coal ash sites across the country pose the biggest threat to neighboring communities. The agency was told by the US Department of Homeland Security not to release the information, citing unspecified national security concerns. The locations of other hazardous sites, such as nuclear power plants, are publicly available.
EPA releases list of 44 "high hazard" coal ash dumps
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, EPA made public its 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. The list includes sites in 10 states, including 12 in North Carolina, 9 in Arizona, 6 in Kentucky, 6 in Ohio, and 4 in West Virginia. Eleven of the sites belong to American Electric Power, 10 to Duke Energy. No Tennessee Valley Authority sites were included on the list. EPA relied on self-reporting by utilities to rank the facilities, and TVA classied all of its dump sites - including Kingston Fossil Plant - as "low hazard."
TVA reclassifies sites as "high hazard"
Two weeks after the release of EPA's list, Tennessee Valley Authority reclassified four of its coal disposal sites to “high.” The four sites include Colbert and Widows Creek Fossil Plants in Alabama and Bull Run Fossil Plant and Cumberland Steam Plant in Tennessee. TVA reclassified most of its other dumps as "significant" hazards, meaning that a dam failure would likely cause economic loss and environmental damage. TVA had initially ranked all its sites as having "low" hazard potential.
EPA's List of 44 High Hazard Potential Units
The following table comes from EPA's official list of Coal Combustion Residue (CCR) Surface Impoundments with High Hazard Potential Ratings. This list is organized alphabetically by company.
Issues at AEP surface impoundments in West Virginia
An engineering report submitted to EPA in November 2009 recommended upgrading the rating of two surface impoundments at the Philip Sporn Power Plant in West Virginia from "poor" to "fair." Engineers from Dewberry, an EPA contractor, said the dams were likely to hold in the event of an earthquake, but that repairs and additional tests were still necessary. EPA said it would consider the recommendations, and American Electric Power said it would conduct further tests at the site. In addition to these investigations, the Department of Environmental Protection also discovered two nearby coal ash dams that officials were not aware existed, and that did not meet state safety regulations.
2010: Reports identify more "damage case" coal waste sites
On February 24, 2010 Environmental Integrity Project and Earthjustice released a report, "Out of Control: Mounting Damages from Coal Ash Waste Sites" indicating that at least 31 “new damage cases” were not listed by the EPA in its 2010 coal-ash pollution sites. The groups identified the sites by assembling contamination data from state files using “similar criteria” to those sites the EPA had already identified. The 31 identified sites are spread across 14 states, including Delaware (1), Florida (3), Illinois (1), Indiana (2), Maryland (1), Michigan (1), Montana (1), Nevada (1), New Mexico (1), North Carolina (6), Pennsylvania (6), South Carolina (3), Tennessee (2), and West Virginia (2). Arsenic, selenium, and boron were among the dangerous chemicals found to have “migrated off” nearly half of the 31 sites where coal-fired power plants store their coal ash. The report concluded that the EPA must regulate coal ash waste in order to protect the public and the environment from the negative effects of coal waste.
The 2010 EarthJustice, Environmental Integrity Project, and Sierra Club report, "In Harm's Way: Lack of Federal Coal Ash Regulations Endangers Americans and their Environment," identified an additional 39 coal combustion waste (CCW) disposal sites in 21 states that have contaminated groundwater or surface water with toxic metals and other pollutants, based on monitoring data and other information available in state agency files.
When the findings from the two reports are added to the 67 damage cases that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) acknowledged in 2010, the total number of sites polluted by coal ash or coal scrubber sludge comes to at least 137 in 34 states.
In December 2011, the EIP released another report identifying 20 additional coal ash dump sites causing groundwater and soil contamination in 10 states – Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Nevada, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas - with 19 sites containing contaminated groundwater with arsenic or other pollutants at levels above Maximum Contaminant Levels (MCL). The new report brings the total number of damage cases identified by EPA and other groups to 157.
Coal waste regulation
Coal waste dumps contain billions of gallons of fly ash and other coal waste containing toxic heavy metals, which the EPA considers a threat to water supplies and human health. However, they are not subject to federal regulation, and there is little monitoring of their impacts on the local environment.
The EPA reclassified fly ash from waste to a reusable material in the 1980s. The agency exempted ash from regulations for hazardous waste beginning in 1993. In 2001, the EPA said it wanted to set a national standard for ponds or landfills used for the disposal of coal waste. However, the agency has yet to act, and coal ash ponds are currently subject to less regulation than landfills accepting household trash, despite the tens of thousands of pounds of toxic heavy metals stored in ash ponds across the U.S. State regulations vary, but most ash ponds are unlined and unmonitored.
In January 2009, Sue Sturgis of the Institute for Southern Studies looked into political contributions by the electrical utilities industry to the members of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. According to data Sturgis gathered from the Center for Responsive Politics' OpenSecrets.org website, members of the Senate committee accepted a total of $1,079,503 from the electric utilities industry in the 2008 elections.
Senate Bill 1751 Coal Residuals Reuse and Management Act , introduced in the 112th United States Congress by Sen. John Hoeven (R-ND). To amend subtitle D of the Solid Waste Disposal Act to facilitate recovery and beneficial use, and provide for the proper management and disposal, of materials generated by the combustion of coal and other fossil fuels.
The bill would allow construction of ash dumps that don't meet drinking water standards for arsenic, lead and other pollutants; allow indefinite operation of unstable and dangerous ash ponds; shut out citizens who live near coal ash sites from permitting decisions that affect their health and safety; allow states to waive any health and safety standards and require EPA to defer to those decisions, and prevent EPA from ever revisiting a coal ash rule, even in the event of increased risk from ash dumps.
The bill is nearly identical to HR 2273.
See Earthjustice’s fact sheet for SB 1751.
EPA considers regulating coal ash
In May 2009, an EPA representative announced at an energy industry conference that the agency is preparing regulations on how to handle ash from coal-fired power plants. Matt Hale, the EPA official, said coal ash may be reclassified as hazardous waste. Although industry officials were vocal with objections, saying such a change would greatly increase disposal costs, Hale indicated that EPA hoped to have a proposal for national regulations by the end of the year. "The catastrophe at TVA changed the discussion and focused the discussion," he said.
EPA is holding public hearings and accepting public comments on its Coal Combusion Residuals - Proposed Rule through November 19, 2010.
Internet sign-on comment letters on EPA's Proposed Rule asking that coal waste be regulated as hazardous waste have been developed by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility,Green America, Credo Action, and Sierra Club.
On December 17, 2009, EPA announced it was postponing its findings on coal ash regulations. A final decision had been expected before the end of the year. EPA attributed the delay to "the complexity of the analysis the agency is currently finishing," but said the delay would only last "a short period." Earlier, in October of 2009 the EPA sent the White House a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking for Toxic Coal Ash. President Obama's choice as the head of the White House Office of Management and Budget, Cass Sunstein, oversees such policies but as of March 2010 has refused to act on the EPA's plea. Sunstein has come under scrutiny for allowing his office to meet with coal industry representatives more than 20 times since October 2010. All such meetings took place behind closed doors and were not open to the public. An anti-Sunstein website was launched in response in an attempt to force Sunstein and the White House to act on the EPA's proposed rule.
Alabama Proposes Coal Ash Regulation
On March 4, 2010 the Alabama House introduced a bill that would allow Perry County, Alabama to levy a $5 per ton fee on coal ash disposed at a privately owned landfill in the city of Uiontown. Alabama Rep. Ralph Howard of Greensboro, Alabama introduced the bill. Currently the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) is shipping coal sludge that breached the Kingston Fossil Plant in Tennessee. TVA anticipates that it will ship approximately 3 million cubic feet of coal and ash to the landfill before the clean-up is completed.
Revenue from the levy would be spent evenly between the towns of Uniontown and Marion. The total amount raised could be as much as $15 million.
Democratic Rep. Ralph Howard of Greensboro introduced the bill.
The Tennessee Valley Authority is shipping coal ash and sludge that breached an earthen dike at the Kingston Fossil Plant in Tennessee to the landfill. TVA plans to ship about 3 million cubic feet of coal and ash to the landfill.
Howard said revenue from the fee would be split evenly between the cities of Uniontown and Marion. Howard estimated the fee could raise as much as $15 million. If the legislation passes voters would have to approve the measure in their November 2010 election.
Office of Inspector General Investigates EPA's 'Partnership' with Coal Industry
On November 2, 2009 the EPA Office of Inspector General (OIG) announced in a report that a formal investigation into the EPA's "partnership" with the coal industry to market coal ash reuse in consumer, agricultural and industrial products was underway. The report also criticized the EPA for not releasing a report about cancer risks associated to the exposure of coal ash until March of 2009, a full seven years after the study was completed. The OIG investigation is a result of CBS's "60 Minutes" piece on coal ash in which EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson admitted that her agency had not produced any studies indicating that the re-use of coal ash was safe.
Coal Ash Industry-EPA Interference
On January 27, 2010, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) released a report that indicated the coal ash industry, with direct access to the EPA, manipulated reports and publications about the dangers of coal combustion waste. The group stated that the Environmental Protection Agency allowed the multi-billon dollar coal ash industry to have access to the EPA during the Bush administration years as well as under President Obama. The result has been a watering-down of crucial reports on human and environmental health related to coal waste. Documents obtained by PEER indicate that industry had access to a variety of EPA coal ash reports over the years and were successful in manipulating the information presented to the public about its negative effects.
The EPA reports were altered in several ways. References indicating the “high-risk” potential of coal combustion waste were deleted from PowerPoint presentations. Cautionary language about coal waste uses in agricultural practices was altered in order to remove negative connotations about the practice. And in 2007 the coal ash industry inserted language in an EPA report to Congress about how “industry and EPA [need to] work together” in order to block or water-down “state regulations [that] are hindering progress” in the use of coal ash waste.
Western Governors Say States Should Regulate Coal Ash
On March 8, 2010 governors from the Western Governor's Association made a statement that the Obama administration should leave coal ash regulation to the states and resist the EPA's effort to reclassify coal ash as a hazardous material. Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer, the pro-coal chairman of the governor's group, says the EPA's move to regulate coal ash would undercut what he described as "effective regulation by Western states." The governors state that the EPA's reclassification would prevent coal ash from being used in industrial practices like surface pavement. Utah Gov. Gary Herbert says coal-fired electric generation in the West would also be hurt, which would cost ratepayers more money. Gov. Gary Herbert of Utah states that coal-fired electric generation in his state and others would also be hurt and would cost ratepayers more money.
South Carolina Coal Waste Permit Issues
On March 8, 2010 it was announced that the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control agreed to eliminate arsenic limits in a wastewater discharge permit for South Carolina Electric & Gas Company's (SCE&G) Wateree Station. SCE&G needs State approval for its coal ash ponds because wastewater from the site runs directly into the Wateree River. The ponds take waste from the company's 40-year-old coal-fired plant. Since the 1990s, high levels of arsenic, a carcinogen, have been found in groundwater and in seepage to the Wateree River from coal ash ponds at the power plant. Sierra Club and other environmental groups are posing to fight the permit on the grounds that arsenic ought not be eliminated from regulation.
EPA Proposes Competing Approaches To Regulate Coal-Ash Waste
On May 4, 2010 the U.S. EPA announced two competing proposals to regulate coal-ash waste produced by coal-fired power plants. Both options fall under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). Under the first proposal, EPA would list coal ash and coal waste residuals as "special wastes," or hazardous wastes, subject to regulation under subtitle C of RCRA, when destined for disposal in landfills or surface impoundments. Treatment, storage, and disposal facilities (TSDFs) manage hazardous wastes under RCRA Subtitle C, and generally must have a permit in order to operate, with land disposal restrictions. Under the second proposal, EPA would regulate coal ash under subtitle D of RCRA, the section for non-hazardous wastes. Under section D, no permit is required, monitoring is done by citizens, not the federal government, and there are no restrictions on land disposal of the waste. Click here for more on the key differences between the proposed rules.
The proposal means the EPA will not necessarily declare coal ash a hazardous waste as desired by environmental groups, and the waste material could continue to be reused in various ways, EPA officials said. The final decision on which proposal the EPA will choose was to happen in July 2010, but has been delayed.
The EPA decided not to choose a single option amid pressure from industry and environmental groups. The federal agency said both proposals for the first time would place "national rules on the disposal and management of the waste material from coal-fired power plants." Yet the EPA's plan leaves open the question of whether to phase out wet storage impoundments in favor of landfills, with the dueling proposals differing on the issue, according to an EPA press briefing.
On May 10, 2010 the Illinois-based Prairie Rivers Network released a press memo criticizing the EPA's decision stating:
- The agency presented two options with vastly differing approaches to handling the 4.4 million tons of coal ash that is generated each year in Illinois. Recent USEPA reports indicate that coal waste leaches hazardous pollution in much greater quantities than had been recognized previously, contributing to over 100 documented contamination sites nationwide, several of which are in Illinois.
- But another big concern for Illinois is the giant loophole left in the rules that will allow the coal industry to dump toxic coal ash in under-regulated and unprotected mines.
Investors urge EPA action
In September 2010, a group of investors representing over $240 billion in assets under management sent in a public comment letter to the EPA reading: “The catastrophic coal ash spill at the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) pond in December 2008 demonstrated that current regulations are not enough to mitigate environmental and financial risk for utilities and their shareholders." The investors go on to highlight the financial assurance requirement in the proposed regulations as a critical measure to assist shareholders in understanding the financial risks associated with coal ash and evaluating which companies are financially prepared to manage the costs of closing down coal ash sludge ponds or dealing with coal ash‐related impacts: “Beyond the TVA spill, the disastrous oil well blowout in the Gulf of Mexico demonstrates that unforeseen accidents can occur that create unpredictably large environmental and financial risk for energy companies. We believe it is critical that utilities be required to assure shareholders and the public that they are financially prepared to manage the costs associated with a catastrophic coal ash spill or other ash‐related events that could require significant clean up costs."
The letter was organized by Green Century Capital Management (Green Century) and As You Sow, and signed by 22 institutional investors including the Connecticut State Treasurer’s Office, New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, and Oregon Treasurer Ted Wheeler; investors including Trillium Asset Management Corporation and First Affirmative Financial Network; and religious investors including Catholic Healthcare West and the Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia.
Public Meetings Held on Proposed Coal Ash Regulation
In late August through October 2010 the United States Environmental Protection Agency's Office of Resource Conservation and Recovery scheduled seven public meetings across the country to discuss the agency's proposed regulation of coal ash. The meetings locations included Arlington, Virginia; Denver, Colorado; Dallas, Texas; Charlotte, North Carolina; Chicago, Illinois; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Louisville, Kentucky and Knoxville, Tennessee.
Supporters and opponents alike attended the public meeting held in Louisville, Kentucky on September 28, 2010. Industry workers argued that the ash can be recycled and used in the manufacture of drywall and concrete, but they argue stiffer environmental rules would hurt business by placing a stigma on the substance, also called fly ash. They said 15 million tons of the ash is used by the concrete industry each year.
Supporters of coal ash regulation stated that the substance was harming waterways and causing human health hazards. "It's destroying the health of the men, women and children of our communities," said Thomas Pearce, a Sierra Club member who used to live near a coal ash storage site in Louisville.
Study: Weak Coal Ash Regulations in Tennessee Highlight Need for Federal Law
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 noted that 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," the report said.
For example, 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.
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."
Coal lobbyists wooed White House staff to influence coal ash regulations
A report released by DeSmogBlog and PolluterWatch released in late October 2010 stated that coal industry lobbyists held 33 secretive meetings with the White House to peddle their influence over proposed coal ash regulation. The report noted that this was over three times more meetings than the administration held with environmental groups on the same issue.
The report noted that the Utility Solid Waste Activities Group (USWAG) was one of the main front groups that represented the coal industry on coal ash regulation. USWAG, the report stated, operated out of the Edison Electric Institute and has argued that disposing of coal ash as hazardous waste could cost the industry $20 billion annually. USWAG lobbyists Jim Rower and Douglas Green were the only individuals granted two meetings with the White House on coal ash regulations. In addition, the American Coal Ash Association (ACAA), an umbrella group for all coal ash interests, including major coal burners Duke Energy, Southern Company and American Electric Power and dozens of other organizations, also argued that a hazardous designation would wipe out the so-called "beneficial-use industry" that used coal ash to produce construction and household products.
ACAA set up a front group during this period called Citizens for Recycling First to argue on the industry's behalf that using toxic coal ash as fill in products was safe. A review of lobbying disclosure records reveals at least 30 lobbyists representing ACAA member companies who reported lobbying White House, Congressional and agency staff on coal ash issues in the first half of 2010.
Enviros criticize EPA analysis on coal ash
In December 2010 environmentalists stated that the EPA's report on cost-benefit analysis of coal ash waste was riddled with errors. As a result, environmentalists stated that they fear that the EPA's analysis would lead to less stringent standards for the substance, a move they said would disregard the potential health effects of coal-ash exposure.
The environmentalists stated the EPA's cost-benefit analysis overstated the benefits of coal-ash recycling, a process by which coal ash is used to make a number of common products. In overstating the benefits, the agency was seen as perpetuating the idea that more stringent coal ash regulation will make it harder to recycle the substance.
House Committee votes to bar regulation as hazardous waste
A House committee approved legislation on July 13, 2011 that would bar federal regulation of coal ash as hazardous waste. The bill, passed 35-12 by the Energy and Commerce Committee, now moves to the House floor, where a Republican majority is expected to pass it. Six Democrats joined the committee’s Republicans in voting for the bill. While barring the EPA from regulating coal ash, the legislation would allow states to treat the ash as municipal waste, placing it in the same category as household garbage and cleaning chemicals, wastewater and construction debris. It was reported that landfills and ponds holding coal ash generally would be subject to the same rules for design, lining and groundwater testing as landfills containing municipal garbage.
Scientists at Duke University find environmental monitoring methods for coal ash lacking
A study conducted by Duke University researchers found that contaminants from coal waste can linger in river sediment much longer than surface water. The study "documents contaminant levels in aquatic ecosystems over an 18-month period following a massive coal sludge spill in 2008 at a Tennessee Valley Authority power plant in Kingston, Tennessee". The team also found different factors that could influence how much of the contaminants escape into the environment, including water acidity and oxygen levels. Avner Vengosh, a professor of geochemistry and water quality at Duke's Nicholas School of the Environment, believes "The take-away lesson is we need to change how and where we look for coal ash contaminants. Risks to water quality and aquatic life don't end with surface water contamination, but much of our current monitoring does... As long as coal ash isn't regulated as hazardous waste, there is no way to prevent discharges of contaminants from these facilities and protect the environment." The study is published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology.
Labeling coal waste "hazardous" could motivate coal plants to minimize waste dumps
Scott Slesinger, legislative director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, believes that if the EPA labels coal waste as hazardous waste, recycling can function as cost savings. Slesinger explains, "If something is a hazardous waste, it has to go to a hazardous waste landfill. That is more expensive than what [the waste producers] had done before."
Keystone, Coal Ash Dropped From Highway Bill
On June 27, 2012 language that would have barred Environmental Protection Agency regulation of coal-ash waste were dropped from a highway spending bill being negotiated by U.S. lawmakers.
Coal waste lawsuits
Maryland $54 million fly ash groundwater contamination class action settlement
A sweeping $54 million settlement against a Constellation Energy Group subsidiary was approved by a Baltimore judge in 2008. Anne Arundel County, Maryland residents and thier attorneys settled a two year class action claiming groundwater contamination by coal ash.
Lawsuit over dry ash disposal site in Maryland
On November 19, 2009, environmental groups filed a notice-of-intent-to-sue against Mirant Mid-Atlantic LLC and Mirant Maryland Ash Management LLC. The groups, including the Environmental Integrity Project (EIP), Sierra Club, Defenders of Wildlife and others, allege Clean Water Act violations at the Brandywine Coal Combustion Waste Landfill in Prince George’s County, MD. The landfill does not use liners to prevent the coal waste from leaching into groundwater, and activists say an expected hazardous designation from EPA would require such liners and other means to prevent water contamination. The notice-of-intent against Mirant charges the company with "illegally discharging toxic pollutants into Mataponi Creek" through landfill leaching and violating the conditions of its permit, actions which have "injured, and will continue to injure, the health, environmental, aesthetic and economic interest of the plaintiffs." According to Jennifer Peterson of EIP, "The TVA spill dramatized the devastation that is caused when coal waste surface impoundments burst their banks. But slow motion toxic leaks and discharges from so-called 'dry' landfills also pose unacceptable risks to the environment and public health." Environmentalists suggest the new suit may lead to more lawsuits, especially if EPA classifies coal waste disposed in landfills as non-hazardous. New EPA regulations regarding coal ash disposal are expected by the end of 2009.
Environmental groups sue EPA for release of confidential information
On December 1, 2009, Sierra Club, Earthjustice, and the Environmental Integrity Project filed a lawsuit to force the Environmental Protection Agency to release information including storage capacity, inspection results, and records of violations, for over 70 coal waste storage sites across the U.S. Some power companies, such as Duke Energy, FirstEnergy, and Southern Company subsidiaries Alabama Power and Georgia Power, have asked the EPA to withhold the data as "confidential business information." The environmental groups filed a complaint in federal district court under the Freedom of Information Act, arguing that access to the information is vital to the health and safety of the communities surrounding the potentially hazardous sites.
In December 2009, there was a Congressional hearing in the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on "Drinking Water and Public Health Impacts of Coal Combustion Waste Disposal." Dr. Donald MacGraw, the GOP's expert witness at the hearing, testified that arsenic is natural and coal waste benign, as seen in this video.
In 2003 and 2004, approximately 100 million pounds of toxic coal waste was dumped onto pristine beaches in Arroyo Barril and Manzanillo in the Dominican Republic by AES Corporation, ("AES") a multi-national, Arlington, Virginia-based power generating conglomerate with plants in 29 countries. The coal wastes dumped contained varying amounts of dangerous heavy metals including arsenic, beryllium, cadmium, chromium, lead, mercury, nickel and vanadium.
The toxic coal ash immediately caused breathing problems and skin injuries to residents of Arroyo Barril who constantly were buffeted with onshore breezes loaded with wind-blown ash. Breathing and skin problems continue today. Much of the mountains of ash was taken away and the remaining material has been whittled down by being dissolved into the groundwater, flowing into the water's edge or being dispersed across the Samana region by the winds. Some of the coal ash was transported to another island location. The toxic coal ash that remains today is hidden in many areas by a thick growth of vegetation.
Following the dumping and its immediate consequences, an even more grotesque chapter is being written in this environmental horror story. The ash that islanders were told was harmless but caused acute and chronic health problems is a toxic time bomb causing horrendous birth defects.
Dominican Republic government settlement
In 2006 AES settled a federal lawsuit with the Dominican Republic for just the environmental consequences of the illegal dumping. The settlement including nothing to compensate Dominicans injured by the illegal coal ash dumping. Details of the settlement remain under seal.
On November 4, 2009, on behalf of eleven plaintiffs in Arroyo Barril, two of whom died after birth, a landmark Complaint was filed in Delaware Superior Court seeking damages from AES and its companies for the human toll the illegal dumping has caused. Law firms in New York City, Philadelphia and Wilmington, Delaware comprise the legal team prosecuting this case.
The Complaint also seeks to compel AES to provide a comprehensive medical monitoring regime for the plaintiffs during their lifetimes. Serious medical problems, including lung and other cancers which take decades to appear, are expected to develop from pervasive exposure to toxic coal ash.
Environmental Groups to Sue EPA over Coal Ash
It was reported in January 2012 that a coalition of environmental groups will sue the EPA to speed the release of new environmental safeguards for the country's power plants' coal ash dumps. The groups involved in the letter of intent to sue were listed as: Appalachian Voices, Chesapeake Climate Action Network, Environmental Integrity Project, French Broad Riverkeeper, Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, Moapa Band of Pauites, Montana Environmental Information Center, Physicians for Social Responsibility, Prairie Rivers Network, Sierra Club and Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. The groups are suing for what they call the EPA's "failure to perform nondiscretionary duties under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA)". The groups claim the EPA failed to fulfill its duty under RCRA section 2002(b) to review and revise regulation that have been:
- inadequate to address the widespread risks posed by the unsafe disposal of coal ash (40 C.F.R. § 261.4(d) and 40 C.F.R. Part 257);
- inadequate to determine the toxicity of certain solid wastes because they establish a test that does not accurately measure the leaching properties of many waste streams (40 C.F.R. § 261.24); and
- insufficient to establish guidelines to protect groundwater and surface water and define prohibited ―open dumps‖ under RCRA (40 C.F.R. §§ 257.3-3 and 257.3- 4).
Coal waste ponds in the United States
A January 2009 study by The New York Times following the enormous TVA coal ash spill found that there are more than 1,300 surface impoundments across the U.S., each of which can reach up to 1,500 acres. Shaila Dewan, "Hundreds of Coal Ash Dumps Lack Regulation," New York Times, January 7, 2009. Also in January 2009, an Associate Press study found that 156 coal-fired power plants store ash in surface ponds similar to one that ruptured at Kingston Fossil Plant. The states with the most storage in coal ash in ponds are Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky, Georgia and Alabama. The AP's analysis found that in 2005, 721 power plants generating at least 100 MW of electricity produced 95.8 million tons of coal ash, about 20 percent of which - or almost 20 million tons - ended up in surface ponds. The rest of the ash winds up in landfills or is sold for other uses.
Top 100 coal waste storage sites in the U.S.
Also in January 2009, Sue Sturgis of the Institute of Southern Studies compiled a list of the 100 most polluting coal plants in the United States in terms of CCW stored in surface impoundments like the one at TVA's Kingston Fossil Plant. Sturgis used data from the EPA's Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) for 2006, the most recent year available. The following table represents the amount of coal combustion waste released to surface impoundments in 2006 by the top 100 polluters. Sue Sturgis, "Coal's ticking timebomb: Could disaster strike a coal ash dump near you?," Institute for Southern Studies, January 4, 2009.
Table courtesy of Sue Sturgis and the Institute for Southern Studies, based on EPA data for 2006. Figures rounded to the nearest pound.
Coal waste and environmental justice
Studies have shown that solid waste landfills, which can be used to store toxic coal waste from power plants, are located disproportionately in low-wealth populations and in areas with higher percentages of people of color.
In a 2007 report, "Race, Wealth, and Solid Waste Facilities in North Carolina,", researchers in North Carolina found that solid waste facilities were 2.8 times more likely to be located in communities with 50 percent or more non-white residents, versus communities with less than 10 percent of residents being people of color. It also found that solid waste facilities negatively impact the health of these communities.
A 2010 report, "Out of Control: Mounting Damages From Coal Ash Waste Sites" by Environmental Integrity Project found that contamination from improper coal ash waste disposal is concentrated in communities with family poverty rates above the national median.
In 2009, As You Sow and Green Century Capital Management filed five proposals asking CMS Energy, First Energy, MDU Resources Group, Southern Company, and Xcel Energy to report on efforts to reduce environmental and health hazards associated with toxic coal waste (coal ash) and to protect utilities from financial and regulatory risk.
April 2010 was the first-ever shareholder vote on coal ash practices and disclosure, with 25.6% of MDU Resources Group shareholders voting in support of increased transparency on coal ash risk. The resolution, supported by over 42 million votes, asked the company to report on the its efforts to reduce environmental and health hazards associated with coal waste ponds, impoundments, and mines, and how those efforts reduce risks to the company’s finance and operations. The resolution was filed by Green Century Capital Management (Green Century) and As You Sow.
In January 2010, Green Century withdrew their resolution with FirstEnergy, a major utility, after the company agreed to publicly commit to a long-term strategy of using only dry storage for its coal ash. The company will stop pumping coal ash into its 1,000-acre treatment pond in Pennsylvania, and transition to a dry method of waste storage, which limits potential contamination.
On April 21, 2011, the Midwest Coalition for Responsible Investment voted on a shareholder proposal that would have required Ameren to provide detailed information about coal waste management and how those efforts may reduce risks to company finances and operations. The proposal got 46 percent of the votes cast — short of the majority needed to pass. The subject of coal ash disposal has taken on significance because of plans by Ameren Missouri to build a new coal ash landfill in the Missouri River floodplain next to the Labadie Power Station, spurring contentious zoning hearings in Franklin County, Illinois. In response to the shareholder vote, Ameren Chief Executive Thomas R. Voss said that he recognized there is interest in the issue and that the company will release 'substantial" information on its coal waste practices by the end of 2011 as part of a broader report on social responsibility; Ameren, however, had advised shareholders to vote against the resolution, saying such a report was "not necessary, prudent or cost effective." The company didn't specify what information it would provide as part of the corporate responsibility report, or whether it would address issues raised in the resolution. Institutional Shareholder Services, a proxy advisory firm, has also recommended that shareholders support resolutions involving corporate sustainability. 
Coal waste research organizations
- "International Ash Utilization Symposia Series
- "University of Kentucky's Center for Applied Energy Research: Fly Ash Library"
- "World of Coal Ash"
- "American Coal Ash Association"
Other uses for coal combustion waste
The utilities industry has promoted the reuse of coal combustion waste because of the growing amount produced each year and because the industry can sell the hazardous waste as a "product" — providing a huge subsidy to coal. Over 136 million tons were generated in 2007 and over 60 million tons or 44.5% were used or sold for a wide range of so called "beneficial uses."
Uses for coal ash are unregulated by the EPA or FDA and coal wastes are used, without testing for toxics or lableing, in a huge range of cosmetics, consumer, and building products including toothpaste, construction fill, kitchen counter tops, dry wall, mine reclamation, bowling balls, carpet backing, utensils, and many other products.
In 2007, 50 million tons of fly ash was used for agriculture purposes, such as improving the soil’s ability to hold water, in spite of a 1999 EPA warning about high levels of arsenic.
Fly ash is also used to make cement. The use of fly ash in cement kilns in the U.S. has grown from about 1 million tons in 2001 to more than 4 million tons in 2006. Mercury and other metals in fly ash are transformed into vapor and released out of the kiln's smokestack. A 2007 EPA study found that mercury content in ash had increased by up to 850 percent as power plants met stricter federal rules for mercury emissions. The EPA estimates that cement plants produce about 23,000 pounds of mercury per year. In New York's Hudson Valley, the Lafarge cement plant releases between 380 and 400 pounds of toxic mercury per year, equivalent to the four largest coal plants in the state.
In muddy feedlots, fly ash is used to absorb excess water. The result, according to Debra Pflughoeft-Hassett, manager of the coal ash studies at the Energy and Environmental Research Center in Grand Forks, ND, is that "animals gain weight and are less stressed."
Coal ash is also used along with salt to help clear snowy and icy roads and to provide tire traction.
Coal Ash as Fill
According to the 2010 report "Unlined Landfills?: The Story of Coal Ash Waste in our Backyard" by the Sierra Club North Carolina, companies using dry coal ash as fill - for publicly used land and even farmland for growing food crops - are supposed to record the presence of the ash on the property deed under North Carolina law (a provision fought by Duke Energy), yet only 56 percent of such uses complied with this requirement. State officials aren't required to do their own tests of coal ash fill to see if it has potentially dangerous levels of arsenic and other contaminants. It is left up to the companies, and there are no rules to check the accuracy of what the companies report. Further, no advance permits are required for fills, and while the state can comment on a company's coal ash fill plans, it does not have the power to deny them.
In response, the report advocates: 1) discontinuing the practice of allowing coal ash to be used for land development and instead dispose of it in landfills that comply with state regulations requiring liners and other precautions to prevent pollutants from leaching into ground or surface water; 2) publicly available groundwater monitoring at existing active structural fill sites for at least 30 years after a structural fill is closed; 3) requiring cleanup by developers if monitoring data reveal that groundwater or surface water has been contaminated by coal ash; 4) identifying a funding source to enable adequate regulatory oversight and enforcement of closed sites; and 5) requiring that the use of coal ash as structural fill be permanently recorded on the deed for the affected property.
Coal ash for coal mine reclamation
On December 15, 2010, the group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) asked the Pennsylvania Auditor General to investigate the use of coal waste to reclaim old coal mines, citing an alleged dereliction of duties by two state agencies. Pennsylvania pursues a policy of “beneficial use” of coal ash from power plants and kilns by pouring the wastes down abandoned mines despite, PEER said, the documented risks of severe water pollution, toxic vapor and even fire dangers.
PEER specifically targeted the principal report used to secure state regulatory approval of using coal ash as mine fill, "The Use of Dredged Materials in Abandoned Mine Reclamation," a report based on the Bark Camp Demonstration Project. A hydro-geologic expert, Robert Gadinski, filed a formal complaint with the Pennsylvania Department of State in April 2008 about the lack of qualifications of the author of the Bark Camp report, under laws requiring state licensure for geologic consulting work in Pennsylvania. The Department has yet to act on Gadinski’s complaint.
Gadinski prepared a detailed critique of the Bark Camp report, stating:
- High prospects of groundwater pollution, as well as contamination of connected surface waters;
- Generation of toxic vapors in mine shafts; and
- Underground combustion of coal ash wastes.
Gadinski also filed complaints and reports with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), arguing that its reliance on the Bark Camp report was imprudent and legally questionable. PEER requested that the state Auditor General conduct a “performance audit” on both the Department of State for failure to enforce licensure laws and on the DEP for issuing reclamation permits on the basis of "unreliable information amassed from an individual unauthorized to practice geology."
March 2011: EPA reports concerns over coal ash uses
On March 23, 2011, the Environmental Protection Agency's inspector general released a report stating that the federal government had promoted some uses of coal ash, including wallboard or filler in road embankments, without properly testing the environmental risks. The report said wallboard "may represent a large universe of inappropriate disposal applications with unknown potential for adverse environmental and human health impacts." Coal ash recyclers and manufacturers that use it have argued that tougher federal regulations would place a stigma on the substance and hinder efforts to reuse some of the 130 million tons produced at U.S. coal-fired power plants each year. The EPA halted a program in 2010 that promoted beneficial uses of coal ash, and took down a related website. The program, called the Coal Combustion Products Partnership, was started in 2001 with a goal of increasing the recycling of coal ash for use in other applications.
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- “Senate Bill 1751” accessed December 12, 2011.
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Related SourceWatch articles
- Coal slurry impoundment
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- TVA Kingston Fossil Plant coal ash spill
- TVA Widows Creek coal waste spill
- Massey Energy
- Federal coal subsidies
- Estimating U.S. Government Subsidies to Energy Sources 2002-2008
- State coal subsidies
- Health effects of coal
- Mercury and coal
- Heavy metals and coal
- Sulfur dioxide and coal
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- Air pollution from coal-fired power plants
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- Barbara Gottlieb et al, "Coal Ash: The toxic threat to our health and environment," Physicians for Social Responsibility and Earthjustice, September 2010
- Sue Sturgis, "Coal's Dirty Secret," Facing South, May 23, 2010
- Donald Saxman, Coal Ash Safety Issues, altenergymag.com (undated)
- "Coal Ash: 130 Million Tons of Waste," 60 Minutes, October 4, 2009.
- "Coal Ash: A National Problem Needs a National Solution," Earth Justice fact sheet, January 2009.
- "Toxic Ash: A License to Pollute," Post and Courier, October 26-29, 2008.
- "Coal Combustion Waste, As You May or May Not Know...", March 27, 2008.
- House Committee on Natural Resources, Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources: Oversight Hearing,"How Should the Federal Government Address the Health and Environmental Risks of Coal Combustion Waste?,", June 10, 2007
- Martha Keating,"Cradle to Grave: The Environmental Impacts from Coal," Clean Air Task Force, June 2001
- Martha Keating, Ellen Baum and Eric Round, "Laid to Waste: The Dirty Secret of Combustion Waste from America's Power Plants," Citizens Coal Council, Hoosier Environmental Council, Clean Air Task Force, March 2000
- Kirstin Lombardi, "Coal ash: The hidden story," Center for Public Integrity, February 19, 2009.
- Charles Duhigg, "Toxic Waters: Clean Water Laws Are Neglected, At a Cost in Suffering,", New York Times, September 12, 2009.