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

Latest News

Federal commission blasts EPA for adding to burdens of disadvantaged citizens More »

In a recent report, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights found that the Environmental Protection Agency repeatedly overlooks the undue burden coal ash storage and fracking places on minority and low-income neighborhoods.

In analysis after analysis, it was clear that coal ash storage disproportionately impacts disadvantaged and minority communities, whether the issue was health problems, drinking water concerns, or decreased property values.

One element of the report included findings from the commission’s spring hearing to learn more about coal ash storage in North Carolina. The daylong session was filled with commentary from people like Tracey Edwards who have lived their whole lives near Duke Energy’s coal-fired power plant and leaking, unlined coal ash pits at Belews Creek and other sites across the state.

“When the Duke Energy plant began its operations in the early 1970's, coal ash would fall off—fall on our land, rooftops of our homes, and our vehicles, and cover them worse than the pollen in the springtime around here,” she said. “There are so many stories that people have that has negatively affected their way of life and their health.  It's not just my community, but other Duke Energy coal-fired plants around North Carolina.”

After listening to hours of testimony about residents wiping coal ash off their children's feet before they came inside, and local cancer clusters, and early admissions to nursing homes, a commission subcommittee urged state and federal officials to take bolder action in North Carolina. Their recommendations included:

  • Ranking all Duke Energy leaking, unlined coal ash ponds as high priority, meaning all ponds would be excavated and moved to dry, lined storage and none would be capped-in-place and allowed to pollute in perpetuity.
  • Annexing the predominantly African American community of Walnut Tree into the Town of Walnut Cove, so that the Walnut Tree residents can have a voice in local affairs, particularly concerning their water quality.
  • Expanding groundwater monitoring to detect pollution and protect drinking water sources.

Edwards supports the commission’s additional recommendations to classify coal ash as “special waste” and to provide for more research on health risks associated with exposure to coal ash. 

“The research hasn’t been there,” said Edwards. “Our state government changed its mind about what levels of contaminants, like hexavalent chromium, are acceptable and which are not without any change in what’s in our water.”

The commission shared its findings as part of a larger assessment of the EPA, following up on a 2003 evaluation of the agency’s compliance with the Civil Rights Act and a 1994 executive order directing all federal agencies, including EPA, to identify and address issues of environmental justice in their programs and policies. Sadly, the investigation found no improvement over the agency’s earlier lackluster performance. Instead, they found that, in 9 out of 10 environmental justice cases brought to EPA, the agency either delays indefinitely or hands it off to other groups. In fact, the EPA’s Office of Civil Rights has never made a formal finding of discrimination.

See demographic statistics on communities living next to Duke Energy’s coal ash storage here.

View All Updates »

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.