Why We Need Federal Safeguards for Coal Ash


One of the homes destroyed by the December 2008 Tennessee Valley Authority coal ash disaster in Harriman, Tenn. Photo by Lyndsay Moseley.

How would you like to live near a pile of toxic waste that, every time the wind blew, spread its particles into your neighborhood? Or this—how would you like to live near a pond full of toxic waste that had no liner and could be seeping into the groundwater and nearby waterways with no penalty?

This is happening to thousands of Americans right now—and the toxic waste is coal ash, the by-product of burning coal for energy.Coal-fired power plants produce approximately 131 million tons of waste per year, making coal combustion waste the second largest industrial waste stream in the U.S. Coal ash contains numerous hazardous chemicals, including arsenic, selenium, lead, mercury, cadmium, chromium, boron, thallium, and aluminum. [1]

When coal ash comes into contact with water, these hazardous materials leach out of the waste and contaminate groundwater and surface water. [2] These substances are poisonous and can cause cancer and damage the nervous system or other organs, especially in children. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has identified over 600 coal ash sites and documented at least 67 proven or potential cases of surface water or groundwater contamination from coal ash in at least 23 states. [3]

A Google Maps Satellite photo of the Little Blue Run Coal Ash Pond - with its bizarre and unnatural blue color - that sprawls across the border of West Virginia and Pennsylvania near the Ohio River.

Sierra Club activists have worked with many communities affected by coal ash waste sites - many of these affected residents started their own community organizations to fight the hazards, and came to us for help. (Check out our map to see if there's a coal ash waste site near you).

Here is one example from our coal ash stories' page:

Kit and Bill Zak live about ten miles northeast of the Indian River Generating Station - a coal-fired power plant near Millsboro, Delaware. Long-time residents of the area, they know first-hand the effects of living near the plant and its piles of dry coal combustion waste, or coal ash.

Bill Zak says the site is already home to two piles of coal ash and the facility is now applying for a permit to create a third pile.

"The difference is that for this third pile, there are more safety precautions," explained Zak. "There's a liner and a mechanical system directing run-off to a storage facility for reuse in the plant. This is opposed to before, in both the other sites, the two piles are just open exposure to the elements, the wind and rain, and they have no liners."

Bill, his wife, and many others in his community formed Citizens for Clean Power and have worked long hours protesting the permitting for the new coal ash pile based on the fact that the facility was not doing anything to fix the old piles.

"If it's required for this new pile, if that's the condition for granting the permit, why won't they remediate the old ones?" he asked.

Another example comes from the town of Oakwood, Illinois:

In Oakwood, Illinois, one neighborhood is seeing more than its share of polluted coal waste deposited within its borders. Over a ten year period, approximately 380,000 tons of coal combustion waste generated by coal-fired boilers at a Bunge North America Corporation facility was dumped into a ravine adjacent to the Grays Siding neighborhood.

The neighborhood is a rural subdivision of 30 homes that all draw their drinking water from ground water. The disposal was allowed without safeguards under state law as a "beneficial fill operation." According to EPA, state testing of the waste dumped at the site found lead levels three to four times higher than the Illinois standard allowed.

In fact, testing of groundwater at 11 sites near the Bunge dumping area showed levels exceeding Groundwater Quality Standards of arsenic, beryllium, cadmium, chromium, iron, lead, manganese, nickel, sulfate, and thallium.


There are more stories - not to mention the stories of disasters near coal ash ponds, such the one in Pennsylvania in 2005 and the devastating Tennessee Valley Authority coal ash disaster in December 2008.

All those dangers and disasters, and still no federal safeguards for coal ash disposal. There is a patchwork of some state regulations, but in most places coal ash, despite its toxic contents, is regulated much like household garbage.

Thankfully EPA has just released its draft coal ash safeguards and they're accepting comments right now. Tell EPA to enact safeguards that protect communities from toxic coal ash.
1 - US EPA, Human and Ecological Risk Assessment of Coal Combustion Wastes, August 6 2007 (draft).
2- Ibid.
3 - US EPA, Coal Combustion Waste Damage Case Assessments, July 9, 2007.
Read more about coal ash:
600 Coal Ash Dump Sites Found in 35 States: Is There One Near You?
One Year Later, TVA Coal Ash Spill Problems Still Far From Over
Overview of Recent Toxic Coal Ash Spills

Tags: Coal | Pollution