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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TVA finalizes damaging plan to leave coal ash in place More »

The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) announced its decision today to move forward with a plan that leaves millions of tons of coal ash in leaking, unlined pits across the Southeast. TVA’s decision to continue polluting groundwater indefinitely poses serious risk to drinking water sources for 3 million residents—2,300,000 in Tennessee and 700,000 in Alabama, according to data and a map recently released by SELC.

“TVA admits that removing the coal ash from unlined, leaking pits is the best way to reduce groundwater contamination risk and avoid decades of potential exposure to cancer-causing chemicals, yet it has decided to risk our communities’ health anyway,” said Nashville Staff Attorney Amanda Garcia. “Of all utilities, as a federal utility and the one responsible for the Kingston spill, TVA should be the one making a decision that protects the public health and our water supplies.”

Earlier in July, several environmental and citizen groups submitted comments on TVA’s final environmental impact statement urging the utility to clean up its coal ash instead of leaving to pollute in place. They raised concerns about TVA’s plan, due to the fact that TVA’s own monitoring data show that sites are polluting groundwater with toxic metals from coal ash, and that the agency has not characterized or quantified—let alone analyzed—the impacts of leaving coal ash in place.

“Today’s decision by TVA is unfortunate,” said Keith Johnson, SELC’s managing attorney in Birmingham. “Their decision to leave 10 coal ash impoundments in unlined, leaking pits next to our rivers means that they are guaranteeing pollution of our groundwater and waterways for decades to come.”

Learn more about SELC’s ongoing coal ash litigation here.

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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, unlined coal ash sites across 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 2015 did the EPA put its coal ash rule into effect. 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.