Coal ash is the hazardous waste produced when coal is burned. It consists of fly ash, which is captured by scrubbers in the smokestacks, and bottom ash, which settles to the bottom of the stacks. Every year, power companies in the U.S. generate — and have to dispose of — nearly 140 million tons of coal ash.
Coal ash contains 25 toxic heavy metals, including arsenic, mercury, lead, selenium and boron, as well as other toxic chemicals.
Coal Ash Across the United States
Across the United States, there are over 1,400 coal ash dumps containing trillions of tons of toxic waste. Half of the coal ash dumps have no liner, 70% are located in low-income communities, and over 200 are known to have contaminated nearby waters. [ Find out more ]
The Southeast is particularly vulnerable, with vast water resources, lax regulations, and almost 450 coal ash ponds with a capacity to hold more than 118 billion gallons of coal ash. That’s the equivalent of 306,000 football fields filled with a foot-thick layer of sludge. Additionally, according to the EPA, 21 of the nation’s 45 high hazard dams are located in the Southeast.
Even if you don’t live immediately next to a coal ash dump, the potential that coal ash will contaminate your drinking water or your favorite rivers and lakes is a very real threat. [ Find out where the coal ash sites are in your area ]
- North Carolina has 37 coal ash dumps located at 14 sites spread throughout the state, all of which are polluting nearby ground and surface waters.
What are the Health Impacts?
A study by the EPA found that people living near unlined coal ash ponds have a 1 in 50 chance of getting cancer, making them nine times more likely to get cancer than someone who smokes a pack of cigarettes a day.
In addition to an increased risk of cancer, communities living near coal ash also face increased risk of lung and heart problems, developmental issues, stomach ailments and premature death.
Watch Annie Brown from Stokes County, N.C., home to the biggest coal ash pond in the state, speak out about health issues in her community.
How is it stored?
Typically, the companies mix it with water to form a sludge that is then stored behind large earthen dams in huge impoundments, ranging from dozens to hundreds of acres in size. Coal ash is also stored in dry landfills that typically lack liners, and dust from dry storage is a concern for nearby neighborhoods.
Most coal ash storage facilities are decades old and have failing infrastructure. The ponds and landfills lack basic safeguards, such as liners to prevent groundwater contamination and systems to collect contaminated leaks — both of which are required for garbage landfills. The technology employed by power companies to store coal ash is woefully outdated and dangerous.
How does it enter the environment?
Coal ash ponds pose a serious threat to surrounding communities and waterways because of the potential for catastrophic dam failure, such as the Kingston coal ash spill in Tennessee and the Dan River coal ash spill in North Carolina. The majority of coal ash ponds across the country are in poor condition, and an alarming number are rated as high hazard by the EPA, meaning that a dam break would likely cause human death.
Both coal ash ponds and coal ash landfills have been proven to contaminate drinking water, lakes, rivers and streams with heavy metals including arsenic, lead, mercury, selenium and chromium. Because most coal ash sites have no liners, water from the ponds and rainwater that has passed through the landfills seeps into the ground and contaminates the groundwater, which supplies drinking water to nearby residential wells. Coal ash waste water is also discharged into adjacent lakes and rivers with few, and sometimes no, limits on the amount of pollutants companies are allowed to release into the waterways. Additionally, power companies have been discovered illegally discharging the waste into waterways.
Coal ash stored in dry landfills has the potential to blow onto neighboring communities and also flies off the backs of trucks that haul the ash from power plants to factories where it may be recycled or reused, leading to breathing and lung issues. Many forms of coal ash reuse also pose a danger to the environment. For example, coal ash is often used as structural fill for building embankments, as a soil stabilizer for foundations and in concrete block.
Coal ash is also pumped into abandoned coal mines in Appalachia in a process called “mine fill,” which brings the waste in direct contact with the water table, allowing it contaminate ground water.
How is coal ash regulated?
Despite the known environmental and health impacts of coal ash, the federal government has no rules or regulations for the disposal of coal ash, and most states manage it with fewer restrictions than household garbage.
For years, concerned citizens and environmental groups have put pressure on the EPA to finalize a strong coal ash rule that would regulate the waste as a hazardous material.
After the 2008 coal ash spill in Kingston Tenn., there was tremendous public pressure for the federal government to adopt coal ash regulation. In 2010, the EPA proposed two options for the regulation of coal ash, both of which fall under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). The first proposal, under subtitle C of RCRA, would regulate coal ash as a hazardous substance, while the second proposal would classify coal ash as a non-hazardous substance under subtitle D. For years the EPA stalled finalizing the rule, prompting environmental groups to file a lawsuit in 2012 demanding a set deadline. The suit resulted in a court-mandated order that requires the EPA to finalize coal ash rule by December 2014.
Effluent / Wastewater
Not only is the disposal of coal ash unregulated, but the federal guidelines for wastewater discharged from coal ash ponds have not been updated in over 30 years, and allow nearly 80% of facilities to discharge unlimited amounts of toxic coal ash waste into our country’s rivers, lakes, and streams. [ Find out more ]