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

TVA moves forward with coal ash cleanup after state’s order More »

In a welcome development for coal ash protections in Tennessee, earlier this month the state’s environmental agency directed the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) to investigate and clean up any problems at its coal ash sites across the state. Yesterday, TVA announced it was seeking public comment on how it handles coal ash disposal.

The administrative order from the Tennessee Department of Environment & Conservation (TDEC) requires more stringent oversight and stronger protective measures than required by new EPA guidelines, released last December.

This action follows a lawsuit filed earlier this year by SELC against TVA regarding its Gallatin Fossil Plant, where for decades coal ash has been leaking harmful pollutants into the surrounding groundwater and the Cumberland River, a source of drinking water for over one million Tennesseans.

SELC has demanded safer protections for the handling of coal ash across our region, including moving it to dry, lined storage away from waterways. A toxic byproduct of burning coal for power, coal ash can seep into groundwater if not stored properly and massive spills in recent years have contaminated major drinking water sources in Tennessee and North Carolina. The 2008 Kingston coal ash spill in central Tennessee was the largest industrial spill in U.S. history.

Since then, the storage and handling of coal ash throughout the Southeast has come under greater scrutiny. In TDEC’s order, not only is TVA required to investigate regulated coal ash storage sites and, if necessary, mitigate, but TVA also must inspect any sites that existed before coal ash requirements were on the books.

TDEC said the order was intended to create a “transparent and comprehensive process.”

The plants specifically mentioned in the order are Allen, Cumberland, Johnsonville, Kingston, Bull Run, John Sevier, and Watts Bar fossil plants. TVA’s Gallatin plant is not on the list due to its pre-existing coal ash plan, in place thanks to earlier SELC litigation.

Another key component of TDEC’s order is the emphasis on public participation. Under the order plan for investigation and mitigation must include opportunity for public notice and comment

Read further coverage of TDEC's coal ash order:

State orders TVA to investigate coal ash disposal sites, The Tennessean

State puts TVA coal ash ponds under extra scrutiny, The Knoxville News-Sentinel

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 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.