Coal ash


Coal ash is an umbrella term. It includes bottom ash, which settles in boilers; fly ash, a powdery material captured in exhaust stacks; and gypsum, a by-product of smokestack “scrubbing”. There are more than 1,300 coal ash dumps in the U.S., most of them unregulated and unmonitored that contain billions of gallons of fly ash and other by-products of burning coal. Most of these dumps, which reach up to 1,500 acres, contain heavy metals like arsenic, lead, mercury and selenium, which are considered by the Environmental Protection Agency to be a threat to water supplies and human health. Yet they are not subject to any federal regulation.
The amount of coal ash has ballooned in part because of increased demand for electricity, but more because air pollution controls have improved. The amount being produced each year, 131 million tons in 2007, is up from less than 90 million tons in 1990. Contaminants and waste products that once spewed through the coal plants’ smokestacks are increasingly captured in the form of solid waste, held in huge piles in 46 states


  • How serious is the issue
  • The EPA position
  • What toxins are in coal ash
  • The Kingston Tennessee spill
  • Uses of coal ash

Additional Resources:

 How serious is the issue

Numerous studies have shown that the ash can leach toxic substances that can cause cancer, birth defects and other health problems in humans, and can decimate fish, bird and frog populations in and around ash dumps, causing developmental problems like tadpoles born without teeth, or fish with severe spinal deformities. (link)

December 2014 update: Coal ash – the hidden story. Each year, power companies generate approximately 130 million tons of coal ash, enough to fill a million railroad cars. Industry representatives estimate 43% of coal ash now gets recycled in such items as concrete or wallboard — two “beneficial uses” that use one type of coal ash. But that still leaves more than 70 million tons of ash annually for companies to dump in lagoons, landfills, and, more recently, mine pits. For decades, the dangers of coal ash had largely been hidden from public view. That all changed in December 2008, when an earthen dam holding a billion gallons of coal ash in a pond collapsed in eastern Tennessee, deluging 300 acres in gray muck, destroying houses and water supplies, and dirtying a river. Despite the litany of damage, there’s no meaningful federal regulation of coal ash on the books; indeed, oversight of ash disposal, much of it stunningly casual, is largely left to the states. link

May 2018: Toxic coal ash ponds at serious risk of flooding. More than a dozen ponds containing coal ash are located in flood zones throughout the United States, putting them at risk of flooding during storms or high water. The report from Environment America raises concerns beyond groundwater contamination, warning that 14 coal plants with onsite coal ash storage ponds are located within FEMA’s 100-year flood zones, meaning that the area is reasonably expected to flood at least once a century. These plants generate 8.4 million tons of coal ash each year, and at least six of those ponds have been designated by the EPA to be in poor condition. link

August 2016: Toxic coal ash pits ‘too expensive’ to clean up. Nearly a decade after the worst coal ash spills in U.S. history, a federally owned public utility is closing 10 toxic coal ash pits across Tennessee and Alabama. But it won’t clear up the toxic residue from the pits, leaving open the possibility of water contamination. The Tennessee Valley Authority said it planned to cap-in-place 10 unlined coal ash at six plants where the ash was dumped for some 50 years. link

June 2016: Research links contamination to coal ash ponds. New research by Duke University scientists indicates that unlined coal ash basins throughout the Southeast have contaminated nearby surface and groundwater with toxic elements, and that closing the ponds doesn’t necessarily solve the problem. Each of 21 sites showed higher concentrations of common coal ash contaminants, and nearly one-third exceeded US EPA standards for drinking and aquatic life. link

December 2013: Study says coal ash kills 900,000 fish a year in North Carolina. Coal ash is responsible for the death of hundreds of thousands of fish in a North Carolina lake, according to a new study commissioned by the Southern Environmental Law Center. The study found some species showed deformities such as curved spines, misshaped or missing fins, and mouth and jaw defects, defects that the study said are consistent with elevated levels of selenium, a toxic element found in coal ash. link

June 2009: EPA disclose the location of 44 coal ash disposal sites. A little while back, news spread that the Department of Homeland Security was refusing to reveal the locations of 44 coal ash dump sites on the grounds that it was a matter of national security. Now, the EPA has revealed the locations of the sites that have a ‘high hazard rating’–ash dumps sites where, if a spill were to occur, would likely lead to the deaths of nearby residents. Many found the DOH’s argument that the knowledge of ash dump locations could be a threat to security was flimsy at best and downright suspicious at worst. link

In Europe, coal waste totals 100 million tons per year by some estimates. Similar figures aren’t available for China, but since it is now burning more coal than the United States, the waste generation is significant. Scientists at the China Building Materials Academy and the Institute of Technical Information for Building Materials Industry calculate that their country has accumulated 2.5 billion tons of coal ash. link  
A truck dumps a load of ash from a coal-fired power plant in Shizuishan, in the Ningxia Autonomous Region of China.)

 The EPA position

August 2018: Federal court finds Obama-era rule on coal ash weak. In another defeat for President Trump’s pro-fossil fuels agenda, the D.C. Circuit on Tuesday found the EPA has failed for years to issue and enforce adequate rules for the storage of toxic coal ash. A three-judge panel reviewed coal ash rules established by the Obama administration in 2015, and changes the Trump administration made to those rules earlier this year. They concluded there were flaws throughout. But they also agreed to grant the White House time to further review and amend the storage regime it issued in March. link

January 2016: U.S. government to see if coal ash is a civil rights problem. Coal ash, a toxic byproduct of burning coal, is a major environmental problem. But disposal sites for coal ash are more likely to be located in and around low-income and minority communities, a fact that’s prompting a U.S. commission to look into whether coal ash is a civil rights problem, too.  link

December 2014: EPA will not declare coal ash a hazardous waste. The EPA issued its first ever regulations on coal ash, a toxic byproduct of burning coal for power. But to environmentalists’ chagrin, the agency declined to designate the substance as a hazardous waste. Instead, coal ash will be regulated similarly to household garbage. Environmentalists have long been pushing for a strong rule, but they were less than enthused about the direction EPA decided to take. Under the new rule, all new coal ash pits must be lined. In addition, the hundreds of old, unlined pits must be immediately cleaned up, but only if they are found to be actively polluting groundwater, and only if they are attached to active power plants. link
[The amount of coal ash generated by the nation’s coal-fired electricity plants has grown from 118 million tons in 2001 to 136 million tons in 2008, according to the EPA’s latest figureslink]

August 2013: EPA confirms coal ash contaminates water across country. As the EPA prepares to regulate coal ash, it confirmed that ash is polluting local waters at 18 sites across the US. The Environmental Integrity Project (EIP) announced the EPA’s findings in a report that maintains there are at least 20 other locations where coal ash is contaminating local groundwater. link

Current coal ash legislation – S. 3512: Coal Ash Recycling and Oversight Act of 2012

 What toxins are in coal ash

September 2015: Radioactive contaminants found in coal ash. A new Duke University-led study has revealed the presence of radioactive contaminants in coal ash from all three major U.S. coal-producing basins. The study found that levels of radioactivity in the ash were up to five times higher than in normal soil, and up to 10 times higher than in the parent coal itself because of the way combustion concentrates radioactivity. link

The following metals/compounds are all to be found in coal ash:
Uranium, Lead, Mercury, Arsenic, Zinc, Copper, Tin, Strontium, Selenium, Nickel, Iron, Cobalt, Beryllium, Sodium, Magnesium, Aluminum, Sulfur, Potassium, Calcium, Vanadium, Chromium, Molybdenum, Manganese, Silver, Cadmium, Barium, Antimony, Radon, Radium and Thorium.

 The Kingston Tennessee spill

December 2008: Major spill in Tennessee. Initial reports that 1.7 million cubic yards of wet coal ash had spilled when the earthen retaining wall at the Kingston Fossil Plant in Tennessee gave way was revised to 5.4 million cubic yards, more than the TVA (Tennessee Valley Authority) said was in the pond. Environmentalists have long argued that coal ash, which can contaminate ground water and poison aquatic environments, should be stored in lined landfills. link
(The TVA had dumped up to 1,000 tons of coal ash every day into a wet pond near the plant, slowly amassing a waste-cake 60 feet high. The spilled ash was transported to a dry landfill in Alabama.)

For decades, the dangers of coal ash have largely been hidden from public view. Today, there are 194 landfills and 161 ponds containing coal ash from 500 power plants in 47 states nationwide according to 2005 data from the Department of Energy, the latest available. Each year power companies generate approximately 130 million tons of coal ash – enough to fill a million railroad cars. Industry representatives estimate 43 percent of coal ash now gets recycled in such items as concrete or wallboard – two “beneficial uses” that use one type of coal ash. But that still leaves more than 70 million tons of ash annually for companies to dump in lagoons, landfills, and, more recently, mine pits. The ash amounts to dirty stuff, replete with toxic constituents – arsenic, chromium, lead, mercury, and many others – that can wreak havoc on the environment and human health. Exposure to its toxins can lead to cancer, birth defects, gastro-intestinal illnesses, and reproductive problems. There is no meaningful federal regulation of coal ash on the books; indeed, oversight of ash disposal – much of it stunningly casual – is largely left to the states – (Truthout link missing.)

Clean-up. December 2013: Kingston coal ash spill: 5 years, $1 billion in cleanup and no regulations later – link  (As of December 2011, the TVA has spent $750 million of an expected $1.1 billion to $1.2 billion total cost for the cleanup – link)

December 2011: Coal ash still a huge problem, three years after spilllink

Buffalo Creek disaster 1972: One of the worst mining disasters in the US- coal waste from mining operations (similar to the coal combustion waste in ponds) was placed into the river, and then dammed. People lived in the narrow valley below the two dams where buffalo creek flowed. The dam burst after days of heavy rain killing 118 people, injuring 1,100 and leaving over 4,000 homeless. Pittson officials (the company that operated the mine) called the flood an “Act of God” and maintained that the dam was “incapable of holding the water God poured into it.” Rev. Charles Crumm, a disabled miner from the Buffalo Creek area, testified before the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the Buffalo Creek Disaster, “. . . I never saw God drive the first slate truck in the holler. . . .” — Pittston quote from Appalshop film, Buffalo Creek Flood: An Act of Man and Crumm quote from Disaster on Buffalo Creek, 1972. link   
 Uses of coal ash

The American Coal Ash Association emphasize the commercial value of what they term as “coal combustion products” – or CCPs. Using fly ash, bottom ash and boiler slag, the U.S. produced 131 million tons of coal combustion products, using 43 million tons while disposing of nearly 75 million tons.  Products are primarily cement and wallboard products.

In The uses of coal ash.1996 approximately 22% of the fly ash produced was used for construction purposes such as making cement and concrete products, structural fills and embankments, as a mineral filler in asphalt pavement, golf courses etc. 
However, many environmental groups condemn fly ash recycling. Using coal ash as for construction are all practices that environmentalists say spread the risk to communities and the environment. In 2007, the EPA had tracked at least 70 cases where coal ash had caused fish kills, or tainted drinking water and land.  link