Press Release | September 14, 2017

EPA Grants Petition of Notorious Coal Ash Polluters

Clean Water Act Criminal and Utility with the Largest Coal Ash Spill Seek Cover for Their Decades of Pollution, Harm

Chapel Hill, N.C.—Just before an October 18 deadline to make public the results of groundwater testing, the Trump administration’s EPA today sided with utilities notorious for their mishandling of toxic-laden coal ash who seek to undercut the efforts of local citizens to protect their drinking water sources from coal ash pollution.  Duke Energy—with 18 guilty pleas to Clean Water Act coal ash crimes in North Carolina—and the Tennessee Valley Authority—the utility known for the largest coal ash spill in American history—are among the utilities* represented by D.C. lobbyists who filed a petition with the EPA to gut the Coal Combustion Residuals rule.  The rule requires safer handling of dangerous coal ash, including at several unlined, leaking pits next to rivers and lakes upstream of many communities across the South.

“Today’s action is the latest example of utilities acting irresponsibly in handling their dangerous toxic-laden coal ash,” said Frank Holleman, senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center which is representing citizen groups in court fighting to protect clean water from the utilities’ coal ash pollution.  “For decades, these utilities dumped their coal ash in unlined, leaking pits that are contaminating our drinking water sources and poisoning our groundwater. In doing the bidding of these coal ash polluters, this administration threatens harm to families and communities throughout the South.”

The Trump administration’s EPA granted petitions by coal ash polluters seeking to weaken 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. The utilities cited three recent executive orders by President Trump in their May 2017 petition and asked that, rather than follow the coal ash law, this administration allow them to:

  • Simply cover up their toxic coal ash in unlined, leaking pits next to rivers and lakes upstream of communities and frequently sitting several feet in groundwater;
  • Dump more of their toxic coal ash into these unlined, leaking pits before covering them up;
  • Do away with standards that are protective of health or life;
  • Create their own license to pollute groundwater in excess of established limits already determined to be needed to protect people’s health and life;
  • Delay deadlines for groundwater contamination monitoring that were to be made public by October 18 under the rule;
  • Continue operating unlined, leaking coal ash pits after they are contaminating groundwater which can migrate and last for centuries;
  • Abandon minimum national standards for construction of liners to contain the toxic waste;
  • Dump coal ash into abandoned clay mines without lining them as “beneficial reuse;”
  • Make up boundaries other than the edge of the coal ash site for measuring compliance; and
  • Avoid responsibility for decades of their toxic pollution of our waterways and groundwater by not applying the rule to their oldest and failing unlined, leaking pits—frequently full of coal ash—that they no longer use.

“Lobbyists for powerful utilities ran to D.C. to stop people and communities across the South who are trying to protect their families and drinking water sources from continued coal ash pollution by powerful utilities,” Holleman continued.  “These powerful coal ash polluters are seeking to get rid of simple requirements that utilities should be following to protect the families and communities that they serve, as well as their own shareholders and ratepayers. Instead, the polluters' petition puts families, entire communities and the utilities themselves at serious risk by seeking to continue utilities’ toxic legacy of coal ash pollution unchecked.”

The urgent need for this national rule was first underscored by TVA’s mishandling of its coal ash resulted in a wall of slurry slamming through people's homes and contaminating the Emory River just before Christmas 2008 in Tennessee.

Duke Energy’s mishandling of its coal ash later led to a spill contaminating the Dan River and its companies pleaded guilty 18 times to nine Clean Water Act crimes for its coal ash pollution at sites across North Carolina. Duke Energy is still on criminal probation now.  Communities near Duke Energy coal ash sites in North Carolina have been impacted by encroaching plumes of groundwater contamination, selenium contamination linked to fish deformations and fish kills in lakes, contamination of drinking water wells, and spikes of carcinogens in downstream treated drinking water.

In South Carolina, where utilities are removing their ash to safer dry lined storage out of groundwater and away from waterways or recycling it, levels of arsenic in surrounding waters have dropped dramatically. Recycling coal ash has led to a new facility and job creation for the local community in addition to clean water for businesses and families.

Holleman added, “The last two hurricane seasons have reminded everyone that it's irresponsible to store millions of tons of coal ash in unlined pits next to the rivers of the South.  Not only do these utility coal ash pits leak and pollute, they are disasters waiting to happen every time there's a major storm or flood.  The communities of the South need all the protections of the existing coal ash rule to help them clean up the coal ash messes that utilities have created.”

*see Appendix II USWAG Members starting on page 13 of linked document.



About The Southern Environmental Law Center:

The Southern Environmental Law Center is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. With nine offices across the region (Charlottesville, VA; Chapel Hill, NC; Atlanta, GA; Charleston, SC; Washington, DC; Birmingham, AL; Nashville, TN; Asheville, NC; and Richmond, VA), SELC is widely recognized as the Southeast’s foremost environmental organization and regional leader. SELC works on a full range of environmental issues to protect the South’s natural resources and the health and well-being of all the people in our region.

Are you a reporter and would like more information? Please visit our press contact page for a full list of SELC’s press contacts.

Press Contacts

Kathleen Sullivan

Senior Communications Manager (NC)

Phone: 919-945-7106
Email: [email protected]

Frank Holleman

Senior Attorney with a focus on litigation

Phone: 919-967-1450