Coal ash cleanup

Protecting our water and health from coal ash

Nearly every major river in the Southeast has one or more unlined, leaking pits filled with coal ash from power plants on its banks and sitting in groundwater. Containing millions of tons of toxin-laden waste, these pits are unlined and have leaked arsenic, mercury, thallium, selenium, and other harmful contaminants into the rivers and the underlying groundwater for decades. 

Historic cleanup of decades of pollution

For more than 10 years, we have fought 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, Tenn., we began enforcing the Clean Water Act ourselves on behalf of local citizen groups securing coal ash cleanups across the Southeast. As a result of our work, all unlined coal ash pits in North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia are being cleaned up and utilities in the Southeast have been required to remove over 250 million tons of coal ash from unlined, leaking pits across the region. We continue to push utilities to clean up their coal ash pollution in Tennessee, Georgia, and Alabama to protect Southern communities.

In North Carolina, our lawsuits on behalf of a number of community groups resulted in the largest coal ash cleanup in the nation through enforceable commitments to excavate or recycle 126 million tons from all 14 of Duke Energy’s leaking, unlined coal ash sites across the state. A historic settlement in January 2020, negotiated by SELC with the Department of Environmental Quality and Duke Energy, marked the finale of years of administrative and legal actions seeking cleanups in North Carolina.

This timeline of North Carolina’s coal ash history highlights key moments, including Duke Energy’s coal ash spill into the Dan River in North Carolina and criminal plea deal for Clean Water Act crimes. 

SELC first went to court to seek cleanup of coal ash pollution on behalf of community groups in South Carolina in 2012. Now, every utility in South Carolina is excavating its coal ash from every unlined, leaking lagoon in the state and cleanups will be underway at every coal ash site in North Carolina. Coal ash has been, is being, and will be removed from coal ash pits owned by three utilities on rivers that flow through both states.

These agreements are the culmination of nine years of work by communities across North Carolina and put in place the most extensive coal ash cleanup in the nation. North Carolina’s communities will be safer and North Carolina’s water will be cleaner than they have been in decades.

Frank Holleman, SELC senior attorney

Following our efforts to clean up coal ash contamination leaking from three different Dominion Virginia Power facilities, Virginia enacted legislation in 2019 requiring Dominion to excavate all of its coal ash pits in the Commonwealth.

After years of our work to uncover violations and enforce the Clean Water Act, the Tennessee Valley Authority settled litigation with the state of Tennessee and conservation groups represented by the Southern Environmental Law Center in 2019 by agreeing to remove 12 million tons of coal ash from an unlined pit on the Cumberland River near Nashville, which provides drinking water for 1.2 million residents downstream. And after years of advocacy by SELC and its partner groups, TVA finally agreed to remove all the coal ash from its dangerous coal ash site near Memphis.

Fight continues for tough standards

Despite the dangers revealed by the catastrophic Kingston spill in 2008 and the 2014 Dan River spill in North Carolina, only in 2015 did the EPA put its coal ash rule (known as the Coal Combustion Residuals rule) into effect. Under the Trump administration and at the request of coal ash polluters, EPA weakened 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. 

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.