Coal Ash

Nearly every major river in the Southeast has one or more unlined, leaking pits on its banks filled with water and holding coal ash from power plants.


Photo © Hollis Bennett

SELC’s eight-year legal effort to protect rivers, streams, groundwater, and drinking water sources 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

Protecting Our Water and Health from Coal Ash

Nearly every major river in the Southeast has one or more unlined, leaking pits on its banks filled with water and holding coal ash from power plants. Containing millions of tons of toxin-laden waste, these pits are unlined and have leaked arsenic, mercury, thallium, selenium, and other harmful contaminants into the rivers and the underlying groundwater for decades. 

Putting a Stop to Decades of Pollution

SELC is in federal and state courts to force utilities to clean up their unlined, leaking coal ash waste sites and protect our clean water 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 on behalf of local citizen groups. 

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

In April 2019, North Carolina DEQ determined that Duke Energy must remove all of its coal ash from its six remaining sites where its coal ash sits in the groundwater in unlined pits next to lakes, rivers and drinking water sources.  The state order followed review of scientific evidence and public meetings and comments in which thousands of North Carolinians called upon Duke Energy to remove its coal ash from unlined waterfront pits in the state.  However, Duke Energy refused to accept the state decision and is litigating to avoid having to comply.  The state and local community groups represented by the Southern Environmental Law Center are opposing Duke Energy in the N.C. administrative court and supporting the scientific determinations made.

In South Carolina, a combination of legal action and public pressure from SELC prompted all three of the state’s major utilities to clean up all of their leaking, unlined coal ash pits 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 three different Dominion Virginia Power sites: the Bremo site on the James River, the Possum Point Power Plant along the Potomac River, and the Chesapeake Energy Center along the Elizabeth River. Virginia later enacted legislation requiring Dominion to excavate all of its coal ash pits in that state.

In Tennessee, the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) settled litigation with the state of Tennessee and conservation groups represented by the Southern Environmental Law Center and agreed to remove 12 million tons of coal ash from an unlined pit at its Gallatin Plant on the Cumberland River near Nashville, 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 2015 did the EPA put its coal ash rule (known as the Coal Combustion Residuals or CCR rule) into effect. Under the current administration and at the request of coal ash polluters, EPA weakened the rule’s requirements for safer handling of coal ash and separating it from groundwater that would have been self-implemented by the utilities and enforceable by citizens. SELC will continue to enforce stronger U.S. and state clean water and anti-pollution laws to protect rivers and communities from the dangers of coal ash.