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.

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Photo © Hollis Bennett

SELC’s six-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.

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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.

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Photo © Jerry Greer

Latest News

TVA filed five motions asking the court to throw out all or part of the case and SELC filed hundreds More »

With the recent court ruling, SELC won its federal Clean Water Act trial against the Tennessee Valley Authority, the nation’s largest public utility, for its coal ash pollution of Tennessee’s Cumberland River. This is the first ruling of its kind in the United States, and it represents a significant step forward in efforts to protect the rivers and lakes of the Southeast from toxic coal ash pollution.

In 2014, the four-lawyer Tennessee office, based in Nashville, initiated the lawsuit on behalf of the Tennessee Clean Water Network and Tennessee Scenic Rivers Association.

The first legal action SELC took in 2014 was to send TVA a federal 60-day Notice of Intent to Sue for permit and Clean Water Act violations. As a result of the notice, just before the conclusion of the 60-day period, the State of Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation filed an enforcement action against TVA in state court. Shortly thereafter, state officials and TVA entered into an agreed temporary injunction that requires TVA to conduct an intensive study of the scope of contamination at the Gallatin site. SELC intervened on behalf of our clients in that case.

In addition to intervening in the state case, SELC went on to file the federal case, and a trial was held January 30, 2017 through February 2, 2017. After a four-day trial, the chief judge of the federal court in Nashville ordered TVA to excavate and move all of its coal ash at the Gallatin Fossil Plant from leaking, unlined pits constructed over an unknown number of sinkholes to safe, lined storage.

Obtaining this ruling against a utility of TVA’s size was a massive undertaking for SELC’s four-attorney Tennessee office. TVA filed five motions asking the court to throw out all or part of the case and SELC filed hundreds of pages of briefing and expert affidavits to overcome those efforts and get to trial. TVA produced roughly 650,000 pages of documents and there were 276 exhibits in the trial.

TVA argued to the court that there was no connection between the coal ash ponds and the river, that ash was not in contact with the groundwater, and that there were no current leaks of coal ash through sinkholes underneath the unlined, earthen ash pits. TVA asked the court to allow it to close the ponds in place by covering over more than 5 million tons of wet ash and leaving the ash in the ground, where it would remain in contact with the groundwater in perpetuity.

In a 123-page ruling, the chief judge said:

“Giving the Court’s blessing to closure in place at this juncture would amount to nothing less than rolling the dice and hoping that reality bears out TVA’s understandably self-interested contention that closure in place will be adequate... If closure in place did prove inadequate, the likely, if not inevitable, result would be yet more litigation—and, of course, decade after decade of the public simply having to hope that whatever unplanned, incidental leakage that was coming from the impoundments was not enough to do them significant harm… As long as the ash remains where it is in either site, there is every reason to think that the dangers, uncertainties, and conflicts giving rise to this case will survive another twenty years, forty-five years, or more. While the process of closure by removal would not be swift, it would, at least, end… While the burden of closure by removal may be great, it is the only adequate resolution to an untenable situation that has gone on for far too long. From the Court’s privileged vantage point in 2017, and based on all of the evidence presented at trial, it is difficult to imagine why anyone would choose to build an unlined ash waste pond in karst terrain immediately adjacent to a river…Nevertheless, while the decision to build the Ash Pond Complex is in the past, the consequences of that decision continue today, and it now falls on the Court to address them. The way to do so is not to cover over those decades-old mistakes, but to pull them up by their roots. TVA, as the entity responsible for the ponds, must be the entity to do so… TVA will be ordered to excavate the coal ash waste impounded at the Gallatin Plant and remove it to an appropriate lined site that does not pose a substantial risk of discharges into the waters of the United States.”

TVA has 30 days to send a plan to the court for excavation and removal and is required to send periodic updates on its progress. We will review TVA’s submission and monitor its progress.

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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 contaminants into the rivers and the underlying groundwater for decades. 

Putting a Stop to Years 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 sites, and SELC continues to represent a number of citizen 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 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. SELC is working to make sure Dominion is held responsible for cleaning up its dangerous coal ash storage sites on 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 minimum  protections, so we 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.

Is There a Coal Ash Waste Site Near You?

To help communities find out more about risks to their communities, SELC and its partners launched SoutheastCoalAsh.org, a website that provides an interactive map and database of 100 coal ash impoundments.