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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Despite coal ash settlement, SELC continues pushing state, Duke Energy to follow laws More »

In a settlement announced today, North Carolina’s environmental agency abdicated its responsibility to ensure the public’s groundwater is protected from coal ash contamination. Instead, the recently renamed Department of Environmental Quality will accept a relatively small $7 million fine from Duke Energy for groundwater pollution at all 14 of its coal ash sites in the state. The $500,000-per-site penalty replaces the $25 million fine DEQ had previously announced for a single site, the L.V. Sutton Steam Plant near Wilmington, which is a 98 percent reduction.

The agreement requires no cleanup commitments from Duke beyond what the company has already agreed to, and the utility characterized the deal as putting an end to state enforcement of all past, present, and future groundwater issues associated with its sites.

“In its first days of existence, DEQ has voluntarily prevented itself from taking action to protect North Carolinians from coal ash pollution of their drinking water by giving Duke amnesty for past, present, and future violations–even agreeing to limit the state’s ability to monitor Duke’s pollution–including at sites like Buck in Salisbury and Allen on Lake Wylie, where residents have severe concerns about their drinking water supplies,” said Senior Attorney Frank Holleman.

The settlement purports to resolve the state’s groundwater claims in cases the state filed in 2013 to block SELC and citizen groups from suing Duke Energy in federal court under the Clean Water Act. DEQ has never prosecuted those cases against Duke Energy, once tried to settle them without requiring Duke Energy to clean up its coal ash pollution, and unsuccessfully asked the court to stay them. Now, DEQ has entered into a settlement agreement that would bring an end to the state’s enforcement of North Carolina laws intended to protect the state’s groundwater, again without requiring a cleanup.

In addition, the settlement agreement provides that DEQ will not enforce the law against Duke Energy to protect Sutton Lake. 

“DEQ is giving Duke a pass on its pollution of Sutton Lake—an important and popular fishing lake in the Wilmington region—by promising not to enforce the law,” said Holleman.

SELC will continue to pursue groundwater protections for North Carolina citizens in its cases against Duke, which are currently before the North Carolina and federal courts.

Listen to Managing Attorney D.J. Gerken break down the settlement on Western North Carolina's NPR station, WQCS.

For more detail, read the EnergyBiz coverage of today’s hearing.

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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.