By Emilie Karrick Surrusco, Earthjustice
When coal is burned to produce electricity, a toxic waste known as coal ash is left behind. Filled with chemicals such as arsenic, radium, and other carcinogens, coal ash poisons our water, sickens our bodies, and kills fish and wildlife.
Thanks to federal safeguards that EPA adopted in 2015 after a long court battle brought by Earthjustice and other groups, power companies are now required to tell us how coal ash is impacting our groundwater. An analysis of 2018 data reported by U.S. coal-fired power plants found that 91% of them are leaking dangerous amounts of toxic chemicals into nearby groundwater. Find out more about the contaminated sites:
Fortunately, Earthjustice and others are working hard across the country to force coal-fired power plants to clean up their mess.
On the federal level, the Trump administration is doing everything in its power to roll back these long-overdue protections at the request of industry. Earthjustice continues to lead the legal fight to hold the line against these attacks on public health and safety.
At the same time, we’re providing national expertise and assistance to our partners as they work to enact key legislation in states and territories. In Illinois, as you’ll read below, we even played a direct role in drafting the state’s coal ash cleanup law. The following highlights that victory as well as other states and territories that have gained greater coal ash protections.
In 2015, Potomac Riverkeeper asked the EPA to conduct a criminal investigation against Dominion Energy after the utility released 27.5 million gallons of contaminated water into Quantico Creek. This was the beginning of a four-year battle to hold Dominion Energy accountable for 27 million cubic yards of coal ash that is stored in unlined ponds across the state – including one coal ash pit where groundwater contained 30 times more arsenic than the maximum amount the state considers safe.
Environmental advocates won that battle in March 2019 when Governor Ralph Northam signed Senate Bill 1355, a historic bipartisan agreement that requires Dominion Energy to move its coal ash from leaking ponds to landfills with liners. The legislation also bans the so-called “cap-in-place” closures of unlined ponds and requires Dominion Energy to recycle at least 25 percent of the ash into encapsulated uses (such as concrete and wallboard).
While the deal does allow Dominion to recover the full cost of the project from ratepayers (adding an estimated $5 to average monthly bills for the next 15-20 years), it is a big step forward for a state that ranks 18th in the nation for coal ash contamination.
The Land of Lincoln has the dubious distinction of leading the nation for the total number of coal ash disposal sites that dump millions of pounds of pollution into lakes, rivers and streams each year. This fact only gave Earthjustice and our coalition partners, including Prairie Rivers Network, Eco-Justice Collaborative, Sierra Club, Environmental Law and Policy Center, Illinois Environmental Council and many others, more motivation to fight for strong regulations that would hold the state’s utilities accountable.
Illinois began developing rules to protect against pollution from coal ash ponds in 2013, but those unfinished rules sat abandoned and ignored until monitoring data released in 2018, under the federal coal ash rule, revealed widespread groundwater contamination throughout the state. Earthjustice attorney Jenny Cassel then joined with a broad coalition to advocate for the Coal Ash Pollution Prevention Actamendments to the Illinois Environmental Protection Act, signed into law by Governor JB Pritzker on July 30, 2019.
This law directs the state to adopt standards for coal ash lagoons that are at least “as protective and comprehensive” as the federal rules – and it requires utilities to compare different coal ash pond closure options, provides for robust public participation in the process, and requires owners of coal ash lagoons to set aside money for cleanup and closure so that taxpayers won’t end up footing the bill. The Illinois EPA recently released draft regulations required by the law, and Earthjustice, Prairie Rivers Network, Sierra Club and Environmental Law & Policy Center, among other partners, are reviewing the language closely and preparing to comment to ensure that the standards adopted by Illinois EPA create the strongest possible protections for Illinois communities.
There is good news and bad news when it comes to efforts to combat coal ash contamination in Michigan.
The good news is that, thanks to extensive efforts by the Michigan Environmental Council, former Governor Rick Snyder signed a bill during his last days in office in 2018 that creates a statewide coal ash permitting program that mirrors what exists at the federal level.
The bad news is that, many of the state’s 37 coal ash ponds – the majority of which have been shown to contaminate groundwater with pollutants such as arsenic and lead at alarming levels – remain unlined. In fact, many of these unlined coal ash ponds are located next to coal plants that are no longer in operation.
The new law requires existing and new coal plants to dispose of their coal ash in lined pits and close coal ash disposal sites within six months if high levels of toxins such as mercury, lead, and arsenic are found in the groundwater.
Coal-fired plants in Michigan are owned by DTE Energy and Consumers Energy. DTE’s Monroe plant, located 50 miles southwest of Detroit, is responsible for more than half of the coal ash waste in the state.
One of the many ways that Hurricane Maria impacted Puerto Rico was by spreading coal ash from an uncovered massive ash pile. Before the hurricane hit in September 2017, there was a 12-story pile of coal ash sitting next to the island’s sole coal plant, which is owned by AES, a multi-national power company based in Virginia, and which churns out approximately 400,000 tons of coal ash every year. AES claims that its coal ash waste is a construction material called Agremax.
Mabette Colon grew up next to the plant in Guayama and has watched as her community suffered from numerous cancers and other ailments associated with the toxic chemicals found in coal ash. The hurricane disturbed the coal ash pile near her house, scattering the fine particles.
Together with the following groups:
- Campamento contra cenizas en Peñuelas
- Comité Diálogo Ambiental
- Partido Independentista Puertorriqueño
- Vive Borikén
- Toabajeños en defensa del ambiente
- Coalición de Organizaciones Anti Incineración
- Sierra Club
- El Puente/Enlace Latino de Accion Climatica
Earthjustice has been fighting to hold companies like AES accountable. In July 2017, the Puerto Rico legislature passed a law banning the disposal of coal ash in its landfills, which led AES to augment the massive waste pile in Guayama. Later AES began and has continued to transport the coal ash to landfills in Florida and Georgia.
In early 2020, Puerto Rico Governor Wanda Vázquez Garced signed into law a bill (PS 1221) that puts into place protections far exceeding the EPA coal ash rule. The law requires AES to remove its dangerous ash pile within six months and prohibits AES from ever storing coal ash at the plant for more than six months, unless the ash is placed in a tank or silo. In addition, no can be placed on land, roads, in landfills or in water in Puerto Rico.
While the previous governor pledged to end all coal-based power generation in 2020, there is still much to be done to mitigate the harm done to the island and its people from coal ash contamination and to ensure future generation of power comes from clean sources.
This coastal state has had a string of coal ash disasters. In 2014, 39,000 tons of coal ash spilled from Duke Energy’s Dan River plant — sending 27 million gallons of sludge filled with toxic chemicals into a river that supplies drinking water to surrounding communities. Again in 2018, when Hurricane Florence unleashed 35 inches of rain over four days, coal ash from a Duke Energy plant in Goldsboro spilled into the Neuse River, and a coal ash lagoon at the L.V. Sutton Power Station in Wilmington was flooded.
Duke Energy, which has 14 former power plant sites in North Carolina, has consistently tried to cover up the problem of coal ash contamination and dispose of its toxic stew improperly. The Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC), along with many tenacious activists across the state, have spent the past seven years fighting Duke Energy.
Their efforts resulted in an April 2019 order by the North Carolina State Department of Environmental Quality that requires Duke Energy to clean up all coal ash ponds in the state and move the toxic ash to lined landfills. Duke Energy appealed this order and SELC intervened, negotiating a historic settlement with the utility that will result in the nation’s largest coal ash cleanup – 80 million tons of toxic coal ash are now slated for excavation. As SELC Senior Attorney Frank Holleman noted: “North Carolina’s communities will be safer and North Carolina’s water will be cleaner than they have been in decades.”
Many groups have played a critical role in the fight to enact effective coal ash cleanup measures in North Carolina, including:
- NC Conservation Network
- Clean Water for NC
- Appalachian Voices
- Sierra Club Nat’l
- NC Sierra Club
- Waterkeeper Alliance
- Southern Alliance for Clean Energy
- Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation
- Yadkin Riverkeeper Foundation
- Environment NC
- Sound Rivers
- Cape Fear River Watch
- NC League of Conservation Voters
- Winyah Rivers Alliance
- ACT Against Coal Ash
- Down East Coal Ash Coalition
- Charlotte Environmental Action