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Coal Ash Continues to Pollute Groundwater

Public hearings started today for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency‘s (EPA) proposed rule on how to dispose of coal ash–the toxic byproduct of burning coal.

In December, a billion gallons of coal ash spilled from the Kingston Fossil Plant in Tennessee, poisoning a river and burying neighboring homes. The disaster, which occurred four months before the Deepwater Horizon explosion in the Gulf of Mexico, was also compared to the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

According to EPA, nearly 172,000 pounds of coal ash are produced annually.

Photograph of New Johnsonville, Tennessee, by Emory Kristof

Up to 80 percent of this residue–containing arsenic, cadmium, and other contaminants associated with cancer–is dumped into landfills. These toxins have been known to leach into groundwater supplies near dumpsites.

The rest is reused to make concrete, cement, asphalt, paints, PVC pipes, bowling balls, floor coverings, shower stalls, and in construction. These types of “beneficial” uses are not regulated by EPA and are not on the table for regulation.

Instead, post-Tennessee spill, EPA is focusing on how to line landfills and monitor groundwater. The agency has two versions of its rule up for discussion; one leaves regulation up to the states, the other incorporates federal enforcement.

Advocates of tighter regulation have suggested the states are not doing enough. They have asked EPA to designate coal ash as a hazardous waste.

A report released last week by environmental nonprofits indicates that coal ash is a serious health concern.

The Environmental Integrity Project, Sierra Club, and Earthjustice have identified more than three dozen sites in more than 20 states where they say coal ash is contaminating drinking and surface water.

Those sites are in addition to the 67 EPA has already identified. At every site with groundwater that the report authors visited, concentrations of arsenic and lead exceeded federal health standards for drinking water.

The findings “illustrate very real and dangerous harms that are going on in a largely unchecked fashion,” said Jeff Stant, director of the Environmental Integrity Project’s Coal Combustion Waste Initiative.

EPA’s first public hearing is in Arlington, Virginia, with six more across the country before November 19.


Tasha Eichenseher is the Environment Producer and Editor for National Geographic Digital Media. She has covered water issues for a wide range of media outlets, including E,The Environmental MagazineEnvironmental Science & Technology online newsGreenwireGreen Guide, and National Geographic News.

[This post has been reformatted for Water Currents.]