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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SELC, partners urge DEQ to excavate Duke Energy coal ash More »

On behalf of citizen groups across North Carolina, SELC submitted comments advocating that all of Duke Energy’s leaking, unlined coal ash pits threatening our drinking water sources across the state are high risk and high priority. The comments detail how proposals by Duke Energy and the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) to leave coal ash in the existing pits—unlined and leaking into our groundwater—would continue the pollution of our groundwater, rivers, and lakes.

SELC’s analysis also demonstrates how Duke Energy’s models and DEQ’s ratings are riddled with errors, mistakes, and manipulations.

“Duke Energy claimed it would rely on science in making its recommendations, but instead it has submitted reports that are junk science,” said Senior Attorney Frank Holleman. “They artificially exclude neighborhoods, create false boundaries around coal ash lagoons that exclude the impact of groundwater contamination, and assume that coal ash does not add contaminants to groundwater. In other words, Duke Energy has designed its models to try to justify leaving coal ash in unlined pits next to our waterways. DEQ should reject this phony analysis and instead protect all communities and all drinking water supplies by recognizing the high risk of letting Duke Energy leave its coal ash mess in our groundwater and beside our rivers.”

Key points from comments submitted by SELC include:

  • Duke Energy’s groundwater models contain “flow boundaries” that assume the groundwater pollution does not flow into neighborhoods.
  • Duke Energy’s groundwater models treat coal ash as though it does not add pollution to groundwater as the water flows through coal ash.
  • Duke Energy’s groundwater models fail to provide complete information, then asks DEQ to find sites low risk because Duke hasn’t provided the necessary information.
  • Duke Energy’s proposals would leave coal ash deep in North Carolina’s groundwater and would pollute rivers, streams, and lakes for decades, even centuries, to come.
  • DEQ’s proposed ratings pick out just three “Key Factors” for its ranking decisions, even though the state’s Coal Ash Management Act requires consideration of many harms from Duke Energy’s leaking unlined storage. By considering a limited number of factors, DEQ has illegally understated the risk from Duke Energy’s coal ash.
  • DEQ’s proposed risk ratings do not give adequate weight to pollution of natural resources and to protecting natural resources for future generations, again illegally understating the risk from Duke Energy’s coal ash.
  • DEQ’s proposed risk ratings would not require Duke Energy to remove coal ash from any of its leaking unlined lagoons, except for those that Duke Energy has already agreed to excavate. By seeking to protect Duke Energy from having to take additional appropriate steps to protect North Carolina’s clean water and communities, DEQ has watered down the risk ratings for all the other sites.
  • DEQ has graded North Carolina’s coal ash ponds on a curve by arbitrarily assuming that some leaking coal ash pits containing millions of tons of coal ash are low risk, some are intermediate, and some are high. In fact, any coal ash site containing millions of tons of coal ash in a leaking, unlined pit next to a waterway is high risk. There is no basis in fact or the state Coal Ash Management Act to assume that some of Duke Energy’s leaking, unlined coal ash pits must be low risk.

The state will be collecting citizen comments and reviewing them before issuing its final rankings.

Please note, the comment period for Duke’s Cape Fear, Mayo, and Roxboro sites has been extended until April 25.

SELC represents the following citizens groups in court to clean up Duke Energy’s coal ash pollution from all 14 leaking Duke Energy sites across North Carolina: Appalachian Voices, Cape Fear Riverwatch, Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation, Dan River Basin Association, MountainTrue, Neuse Riverkeeper Foundation, Roanoke River Basin Association, Sierra Club, Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, Waterkeeper Alliance, Winyah Rivers Foundation, and Yadkin Riverkeeper.

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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 coal ash sites throughout 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 October 2015 will the EPA put into place long-awaited federal coal ash protections. 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.