Coal Ash

SELC’s three-year legal effort to protect local drinking water from coal ash rose to national prominence following the devastating spill on the Dan River.


Photo © Waterkeeper Alliance

2008 Coal Waste Spill in Tennessee: The catastrophic waste spill at the TVA plant in Tennessee underscored the urgent need for regulation of coal waste.


Photo © Jerry Greer

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Coal Ash Removal Underway by Santee Cooper in Conway, S.C. More »

Regulation of Coal Combustion Waste

Protecting Our Water and Our Health from Coal Ash

Nearly every major river in the Southeast has one or more lagoons on its banks holding slurries of coal ash from power plants. Containing hundreds of thousands of tons of toxin-laden waste, these pools are often unlined and have leaked arsenic, mercury, thallium, selenium, and other contaminants into the rivers and the underlying groundwater for years, if not decades.  A report by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found that unlined coal combustion waste ponds pose a cancer risk 900 times above acceptable levels.

Putting a Stop to Years of Pollution

SELC is using its law and policy skills to force our region’s utilities to clean up their waste sites and store coal ash in ways that protect water quality and people's health.

In North Carolina, we are aiming to reform lax practices that have allowed Progress Energy Carolinas and Duke Energy Carolinas to avoid remediating coal ash contamination from lagoons at more than a dozen power plants, stretching from the mountains to the coast. At a site near Wilmington, for example, arsenic levels in the groundwater are 27 times above state standards. In the Piedmont area, coal ash dumps are releasing pollution into one of the Charlotte metro area’s largest drinking water sources. And coal ash pools near Asheville are leaking thousands of gallons of wastewater into creeks feeding the French Broad River, bypassing the on-site treatment system.

In South Carolina, our legal action resulted in an agreement from South Carolina Electric & Gas to clean up coal ash lagoons at its Wateree plant southeast of Columbia. The utility has made a binding commitment remove all of the more than 2.4 million tons of coal combustion waste from the impoundments, long a source of arsenic and other pollutants into the Catawba-Wateree River. We also took legal action that resulted in an agreement from Santee Cooper to stop coal ash contamination from its Grainger plant near Myrtle Beach. The state-owned utility stores 650,000 tons of ash in the plant’s waste pools, which have been discharging arsenic into the Waccamaw River upstream from drinking water intakes and the Waccamaw National Wildlife Refuge.

Advocating Tougher Standards

Despite the dangers revealed by the catastrophic ash spill at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Kingston plant in 2008, political and industry pressure has delayed the adoption of the tough federal regulations needed to ensure safe disposal of coal ash. SELC and its allies are urging EPA to implement a strong, enforceable rule that protects groundwater, surface water, and communities near waste sites—particularly disadvantaged communities, which are often the most vulnerable to coal ash pollution. In the absence of strong federal safeguards, we must rely on an inconsistent patchwork of rules in our states, some of which have tougher standards for handling household garbage than they do for the disposal of coal ash.

Is There a Coal Ash Waste Site Near You?

To help Southerners find out more about risks to their communities, SELC and its partners launched, a website that provides an interactive map and database of 100 coal-fired power plants and their coal ash impoundments. EPA rates a number of these sites as “high hazard”, meaning that a failure like TVA’s Kingston disaster would likely cause fatalities.