EPA takes critical action to address coal ash pollution
WASHINGTON – Today the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency took critical steps to protect communities and clean water from toxic coal ash pollution by making it clear that utilities must deal with ash sitting in groundwater, groundwater contamination, and threats to surrounding communities.
Today’s actions are the first steps by EPA to enforce the provisions of the federal Coal Combustion Residual Rule, which restricts how utilities can close old, leaking coal ash lagoons and requires corrective action to adequately address ongoing water pollution.
Today’s announcement marks the first time EPA has enforced the federal coal ash rule by officially denying requests by utilities to continue dumping coal ash into unlined, leaking surface impoundments. In addition, the proposed determinations reinforce the agency’s “consistently-held” position that surface impoundments or landfills cannot be closed with coal ash in contact with groundwater.
The reasons driving EPA’s decisions set a precedent for compliance that applies to coal ash lagoons nationwide. Utilities in Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee still storing coal ash in leaking, unlined pits sitting in groundwater and next to waterways are among those affected by the decision.
In response to today’s announcement, the following statement is from Frank Holleman, Senior Attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center:
“The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has stepped up to offer communities hope and to protect clean water, rivers, and drinking water supplies from the threats posed by coal ash. With EPA’s leadership, we now have the opportunity to put coal ash pollution and catastrophes behind us and to restore commonsense protections for communities across the South who have lived with coal ash contamination for far too long.”
For over 10 years, SELC has fought in federal and state courts to force utilities in the Southeast to excavate and remove coal ash from unlined, leaking pits to dry, lined storage out of the groundwater and away from waterways in order to protect clean water and communities. As a result, all unlined coal ash pits in North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia are being cleaned up, and utilities across the region have been required to remove over a quarter billion tons of coal ash from unlined pits.
SELC continues to push utilities to clean up their coal ash pollution in Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee.
Alabama Power, TVA, and PowerSouth Energy Cooperative are planning to leave over 110 million tons of coal ash in unlined, leaking pits at all sites in Alabama rather than excavating and removing it to dry, lined and modern landfills away from water.
The utilities’ own filings confirm there is groundwater pollution at every coal ash site statewide, and the Alabama Department of Environmental Management has confirmed this pollution. The filings have also shown that, under current plans to cap-and-close these sites, the utilities plan to leave toxic coal ash soaking in groundwater at every site, which will perpetually contaminate surrounding water sources for decades or centuries to come.
The utilities have also proposed no clean-up of current groundwater contamination.
- Georgia Power is excavating about half of its coal ash from unlined leaking lagoons, but is proposing to leave nearly 50 million tons of coal ash in unlined pits at five of its sites near Atlanta and Macon, and in northwest Georgia: Plants Hammond (Rome), McDonough (Smyrna), Wansley (south of Carrollton), Scherer (Juliette), and Yates (Newnan).
- The Georgia Environmental Protection Division announced the draft permit for Plant Hammond’s Ash Pond 3 in July 2021, the first coal ash permit in state history proposing to allow this industrial waste to be permanently left in an unlined, leaking pit, even while partially submerged in groundwater.
- That permit is not yet final, has been the subject of critical comments by community and conservation groups, and should be revised in light of EPA’s actions.
- EPA’s announcement will immediately apply to over 50 million tons of coal ash spread across seven TVA sites in Tennessee, at pits where TVA has admitted that the federal coal ash rule applies. This is only a fraction of the total amount of coal ash stored by TVA in leaking, unlined pits in Tennessee.
- TVA has reported groundwater contamination at each of its coal ash sites across the state—including levels of arsenic at more than 300 times safe drinking water standards at the Allen Fossil Plant in Memphis.
- Because of litigation brought by SELC and the Tennessee Department of Environmental Control, TVA is required to excavate 12 million tons of ash from some of its leaking pits at its Gallatin facility on the Cumberland River near Nashville. Due to public outcry and threats to the Memphis Aquifer, TVA has conceded that it also must excavate all the coal ash from its unlined pits at its Allen facility near Memphis. But TVA is proposing to leave ash in unlined pits throughout the rest of Tennessee.
The Southern Environmental Law Center is one of the nation’s most powerful defenders of the environment, rooted in the South. With a long track record, SELC takes on the toughest environmental challenges in court, in government, and in our communities to protect our region’s air, water, climate, wildlife, lands, and people. Nonprofit and nonpartisan, the organization has a staff of 170, including 90 attorneys, and is headquartered in Charlottesville, Va., with offices in Asheville, Atlanta, Birmingham, Chapel Hill, Charleston, Nashville, Richmond, and Washington, D.C. southernenvironment.org