Coal Ash

SELC’s four-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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Georgia Power, Alabama Power to begin addressing coal ash storage More »

Georgia Power and Alabama Power have announced plans to close their respective coal ash storage ponds, though both utilities remain tight-lipped on the specifics of those closure plans. The announcements come as the utilities face deadlines under the new federal coal ash regulations unveiled earlier this year.

Georgia Power’s plans are expected to address the 29 coal ash impoundments at 11 coal-fired power plants across the state of Georgia, while Alabama Power must deal with the waste in 16 ash ponds from six coal-fired power plants in Alabama.

Coal ash is a byproduct of burning coal and contains a number of harmful contaminants like arsenic, selenium, mercury and lead. For decades, utilities have typically stored this waste in wet form in large unlined impoundments. Those impoundments, like the coal plants they serve, are often located immediately adjacent to major rivers, lakes and streams.

Because the impoundments are unlined, there is no barrier to protect the underlying groundwater, and surrounding surface waters, from the seepage of coal ash contaminants. Coal ash impoundments also present an ever-present risk of structural failure because they are generally contained only by earthen dams.

In several high-profile catastrophes those dams have given way, unleashing severe economic and environmental harm on downstream communities. The massive coal ash spills at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Kingston Fossil Plant in 2008, and Duke Energy’s Dan River plant in North Carolina in 2014 were the result of structural failures.

Utilities in South Carolina have begun eliminating these risks by excavating the coal ash and moving it to lined, dry storage away from waterways. In the wake of the Dan River disaster, Duke Energy has likewise announced plans to move coal ash to lined storage at several of its North Carolina sites.

This is the safest option for protecting public health and the environment, and utilities in the Carolinas are demonstrating it to be feasible and cost-effective. It is the standard that should be followed in handling Georgia’s ash ponds, said Senior Attorney Kurt Ebersbach in an interview on Atlanta’s NPR station WABE. (Listen to the full WABE interview here.)

Unfortunately, EPA’s coal ash regulations do not mandate this result but instead allow for “cap-in-place”, a practice that amounts to “pollute-in-place” as it does nothing to protect groundwater from continuing coal ash pollution.

Neither Georgia Power nor Alabama Power – both Southern Company subsidiaries – have released timetables for the closures, nor have they provided details on how the large volumes of ash will be handled.

“The question is not whether these utilities will do the bare minimum, it’s will they do the right thing?” said Senior Attorney Kurt Ebersbach. “The EPA rule is a set of minimum standards. Utilities in the Carolinas are leading the way by doing more. Georgia Power and Alabama Power should follow their lead and eliminate the risks of coal ash pollution once and for all.”

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Protecting Our Water and 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. 

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. When state and federal governments did not act following a devastating 2008 spill in Kingston, TN, we began enforcing the law ourselves. 

In North Carolina, our lawsuits have produced cleanup commitments at seven Duke Energy sites, and SELC continues to represent a number of groups to require clean up at all 14 of Duke Energy’s leaking coal ash sites throughout the state.

In South Carolina, a combination of legal action and public pressure from SELC prompted all three of the state’s major utilities to begin a significant cleanup to clean up leaking coal ash lagoons on South Carolina’s rivers - a historic accomplishment for clean water in South Carolina.

In Virginia, we uncovered decades of coal ash pollution leaking from two different Dominion Virginia Power sites: the Possum Point Power Plant along the Potomac River, and the Chesapeake Energy Center along the Elizabeth River. SELC is working to make sure Dominion is held responsible for cleaning up these waterways. 

In Tennessee, we filed a lawsuit against Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) for coal ash at the Gallatin Plant polluting the Cumberland River, which provides drinking water for 1.2 million residents downstream.  

Advocating Tougher Standards

Despite the dangers revealed by the catastrophic Kingston spill in 2008 and the 2014 Dan River spill in NC, only in October 2015 will the EPA put into place long-awaited federal coal ash protections. This rule establishes only a bare minimum of protection, so we will continue to enforce stronger federal and state clean water and anti-pollution laws to protect rivers and communities from the dangers 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 ash impoundments.