Coal ash is industrial waste left behind when coal is burned, typically in a coal-fired power plant that burns coal to produce electricity. Coal ash is one of the largest industrial wastes in the United States, with coal power plants producing around 140 million tons of the toxic ash waste each year. The ash is usually disposed of in landfills or mixed with water and stored in sludge ponds. The coal ash contains highly toxic materials that can cause significant harm to health and the environment. Adequate regulation of coal ash disposal is essential to protect the public.
What is Coal Ash?
Coal ash is industrial waste left behind when coal is burned, typically from a coal-fired power plant. According to the EPA (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency), coal ash includes:
- powdery ash known as fly ash
- heavier coarse ash called bottom ash which forms in the bottom of a coal furnace
- molten bottom ash called boiler slag
- flue gas desulfurization material which can be wet or dry
Dangers of Coal Ash
According to the EPA, coal ash contains toxic contaminants such as mercury, arsenic, and cadmium, and without proper disposal, these contaminants cause pollution to waterways, ground water, drinking water and the air. The Physicians for Social Responsibilities, a Nobel Prize winning organization of physicians, has pointed out that coal ash can also contain additional toxic heavy metals, such as lead, chromium and selenium, as well as aluminum, antimony, barium, beryllium, boron, chlorine, cobalt, manganese, molybdenum, nickel, thallium, vanadium, and zinc. The toxicants in coal ash cause cancer, neurological damage, heart damage, lung disease, kidney disease, and birth defects. The EPA in a study found that people living near an unlined ash pond may have as much as 1 in 50 chance of getting cancer from drinking arsenic-contaminated water.
Disposal of Coal Ash
Coal ash can be disposed of or recycled for use in making cement, concrete, and cinder blocks. Coal ash can be disposed of in a dry landfill or in coal ash ponds where coal ash has been mixed with water to form a sludge stored within retaining walls in impoundments.
Coal Power Plant Boiler, Coal Ash Components, and Ash Disposition
Coal Ash Ponds
File photo of Duke Energy’s coal-burning plant and the adjacent coal ash ponds by the Dan River. RIVERKEEPER FOUNDATION
Recent Coal Ash Catastrophic Spills
Kingston, Tennessee Spill: On December 22, 2008, a retaining wall collapsed on the side of a coal ash pond for the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) Kingston Fossil Plant, a coal power plant located in Harriman, Tennessee. This pond wall failure released 1.1 billion gallons of coal ash sludge over approximately 300 acres of land, resulting in one of the largest ash spills in history which destroyed homes and roads and contaminated land and water.
Dan River, Eden, North Carolina Spill: On February 2, 2014, a breakage at Duke Energy’s Dan River Steam Station in Eden, North Carolina, caused a coal ash spill which released approximately 39,000 tons of coal ash and 27 million gallons of contaminated water into the Dan River. Duke Energy has been fined over 100 million dollars in connection with the spill.
Closing Coal Ash Ponds
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, coal power plants have decreased in number from 619 in 2005 to 427 in 2015. As coal power plants are closing and as requirements for managing coal ash impoundments increase, some power companies are closing old coal ash ponds. Closing a coal ash pond involves dewatering it, disposing of the ash left behind by sealing it in a land pit or sending it to a landfill, and disposing of the water in a water source. There is serious danger to the public health and to the environment when water filled with toxic contaminants is emptied into the waterways.
Georgia Power announced in June of 2016 its intention to close all of the company’s 29 ash ponds across the State of Georgia and remove the ash from 16 ponds adjacent to lakes or rivers.
I live in the state of Georgia and am an avid catch-and-release angler with a strong interest in the protection of the environment and our waterways. I regularly fish in and hike near the Chattahoochee River which runs through Atlanta, Georgia, and provides the source for drinking water for about four million people in the state. My high school is located about three miles north of Georgia Power’s Plant McDonough-Atkinson. Plant McDonough-Atkinson is located adjacent to the Chattahoochee River and was originally built in the 1960s as a coal-burning power plant. Two coal-fired power units were closed at the plant in 2012 and replaced with three natural gas power units at the same location in 2012. Georgia Power plans to dewater the ash ponds at this location and discharge wastewater into the Chattahoochee River. The Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD) approved the Coal Ash Pond Dewatering Plan from Georgia Power Company on January 10, 2017 for the discharge of treated wastewater from its coal combustion residuals ponds (ash ponds) at Georgia Power Plant McDonough-Atkinson.
One of Georgia Power’s coal ash ponds, at Plant McDonough near Smyrna, in a 2011 photo. Bob Andres firstname.lastname@example.org
Need for Adequate Regulations
Numerous studies show the dangers of water contamination from ash pond leakage. Researchers at Duke University at The Nicholas School for the Environment published a study in June of 2016, in which they showed the results of their research of groundwater and surface waters near 21 coal power plant ash ponds in five states. The study found evidence of leakage at all ash pond sites tested and found high levels of contamination of toxic heavy metals including arsenic in the groundwater and surface waters at all the sites.
Evidence for Coal Ash Ponds Leaking in the Southeastern United States, Barry Sulkin and Avner Vengosh. Environmental Science and Technology, online June 10, 2016. DOI: 10.1021/acs.est.6b01727
Lack of Adequate Legal Protections for Water Supply and Public Health and Safety
There were no federal regulations on coal ash disposal prior to 2014. Almost six years after the catastrophic Kingston TVA spill in Tennessee, the EPA promulgated its first rules establishing minimum standards for coal ash. The rules did establish some requirements for landfill and ponds in terms of stability and groundwater monitoring but failed to classify coal ash as hazardous waste. Environmental advocates and scientists strongly objected to the EPA’s classification of coal ash as “non-hazardous waste” because coal ash indisputably contains highly toxic metals including arsenic, lead, and mercury which can cause extreme harm. In 2015, the EPA set limits on liquid discharge into waterways. Remarkably, these are the first federal rules to control toxic fluid discharges into waterways from power plants.
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Coal Ash Rules (2014)
- Regulates coal ash only as a non-hazardous solid waste
- Establishes structural stability requirements and inspections for new and existing coal ash landfills and ponds
- Requires waterproof linings under new coal ash landfill and ponds
- Requires groundwater monitoring of coal ash landfills and ponds, public disclosure of results, and cleanup if groundwater contamination is found
EPA Steam Electric Effluent Limitation Guidelines (2015)
- Guidelines attempt to reduce amount of pollutants that have been transferred from air pollution technologies to the wastewater (toxins removed from air emissions end up in water)
- Set limits on the levels of toxic metals, including arsenic, mercury, lead, and selenium, that can be discharged in wastewater from power plants.
State of Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD) Coal Ash Rules (2016)
- Incorporates most EPA rules and goes further to apply rules to a broader set of coal ash storage and disposal sites
- Requires landfills that accept coal to ash submit coal ash management plan and to test groundwater for coal ash contaminants
- Requires all coal ash storage and disposal sites to be permitted by Georgia EPD
Proposed 2017 laws in Georgia State Legislature that did not pass (2017)
- Would end dumping of coal ash in unlined coal ash disposal sites and close all existing unlined sites
- Would require management plan and proof that coal ash disposal sites will not leak into groundwater
- Would require notice of exact date of dewatering in advance to public
Study of power plants in 5 states found that toxic materials can leach out of the unlined coal ash storage pits to surface waters and shallow groundwater. Credit – Duke University http://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/acs.est.6b0172
Call to Advocacy Action to Promote Institutional Change
1. Urge Congress to implement stricter protections against coal ash contamination and toxic effluent discharge.
Efforts by the new EPA Administrator or Congress to delay required compliance with the EPA’s long awaited Coal Ash Rule or Steam Electric Effluent Limitation Guidelines which provide minimal protections to the public would be devastating to public health and the environment.
Urge Congress not to undermine rules relating to coal ash.
Write a letter to your U.S. and local senators and legislators urging greater protections.
Use the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives database:
Dear Senator or Representative,
I am highly alarmed about the dangers to our waterways from coal ash ponds and coal ash dump sites. Arsenic, lead, mercury, and other neurotoxins and carcinogens in coal ash threaten our health and safety. Safe water is non-partisan. Please take action to protect communities by voting to uphold and strengthen coal ash and effluent regulations, not delay enforcement or undermine these protections.
And / Or
Join environmental groups by signing their existing petitions. For example, the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy has a coal ash petition. Go to:
2. Contact your local Riverkeeper or Waterkeeper organization for information and to partner for safe water and safer coal ash disposition. Go to Waterkeeper Alliance and find Waterkeeper and Riverkeeper organizations around the world.
Staff File Photo by Patrick Smith Chattanooga Times Free Press