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 has been 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 on behalf of a number of community groups resulted in the largest coal ash cleanup through enforceable commitments to excavate or recycle 126 million tons from all 14 of Duke Energy’s leaking, unlined coal ash sites across the state—Allen, Asheville, Belews Creek, Buck, Cape Fear, Cliffside, Dan River, Lee, Marshall, Mayo, Riverbend, Roxboro, Sutton and Weatherspoon facilities. A historic settlement in January 2020 negotiated by SELC with the Department of Environmental Quality and Duke Energy culminated efforts that began in 2012 when SELC first went to court to seek cleanup of coal ash pollution on behalf of community groups in South Carolina, and thereafter brought administrative and legal actions that sought cleanups in North Carolina. A timeline highlighting key moments in North Carolina's coal ash history, including Duke Energy’s coal ash spill into the Dan River in North Carolina and criminal plea deal for Clean Water Act crimes is available here.

Now, every utility in South Carolina is excavating its coal ash from every unlined, leaking lagoon in the state and cleanups will be underway at every coal ash site in North Carolina. Coal ash has been, is being, and will be removed from coal ash pits owned by three utilities on rivers that flow through both states.

Following efforts to clean up coal ash contamination leaking from three different Dominion Virginia Power facilities--Bremo, Possum Point, and Chesapeake Energy Center—Virginia 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 Trump 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.