Policy Update

NCEL Letter to EPA: Coal Ash Sign-on



NCEL Point of Contact

Ava Gallo
Climate and Energy Program Manager


The undersigned 155 state representatives respectfully urge the EPA to finalize strong coal ash and toxic water pollution standards for coal-burning power plants swiftly. Strong standards are essential to protect our communities, drinking water, and wildlife.

America’s waterways and sources of drinking water are threatened by toxic pollution from coal-burning power plants. EPA has determined that coal fired power plants are responsible for at least 50 – 60% of the toxic water pollutants discharged into U.S. waters. These power plants are responsible for more toxins entering our rivers and streams than any other industry in the United States, including the chemical, plastic, and paint-manufacturing industries. The wastewater from coal plants has been found to contain a number of toxins including arsenic, mercury and selenium – toxins that build up in ecosystems and that are dangerous even in very small amounts. At present, 4 out of 5 coal plants in the United States have no limits on the amount of toxics they are allowed to dump into our water.

At the same time that coal-burning power plants are emitting toxic pollutants directly into our waterways, they are producing roughly 140 million tons of coal ash waste per year, the toxic by-product of coal combustion. Some of this ash is recycled, but the rest is stored in open-air pits and precarious surface waste impoundments, often directly adjacent to streams, lakes and other water bodies. Many of these sites lack adequate safeguards, placing nearby communities at risk of both impoundment collapse and seeps and leaks into groundwater and surface waters.

On February 2, 2014, the third largest coal ash spill in US history occurred from a “retired” coal ash lagoon at the Dan River Power Station in Eden, NC into the Dan River. The spill has coated the river with coal ash for 70 miles, and dangerous levels of arsenic and other hazardous contaminants have been detected in the water. Although the Dan River plant closed in 2012, about a million gallons of toxic sludge remain in the unlined pond, posing a
continuing threat to the underlying groundwater, the river, and communities downstream in North Carolina and Virginia.

The impoundment at the Dan River plant is only one of 1,070 outdated coal ash impoundments across the country that pose a risk of contaminating surface water and groundwater. To date, EPA and public interest groups have identified over 200 coal ash disposal sites in 37 states that have contaminated water with toxic chemicals, including
arsenic, cadmium, chromium, lead and mercury. The location of most coal ash impoundments near lakes, streams and rivers endangers waterways and drinking water sources. Across the nation, coal-burning power plants with decades-old impoundments are retiring in states that do not require safe closure and cleanup.

The disaster in North Carolina is a powerful reminder of the harm caused by dangerous and outdated toxic waste dumps, but this is not the first coal ash spill or toxic water contamination and it will not be the last such disaster if EPA fails to address the clear causes of the problem.

We urge the EPA to protect our waterways from toxic coal pollution by adopting strong, federally enforceable safeguards for coal ash disposal and reuse under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) and for water pollution discharges from coal plants under the Clean Water Act quickly. Without strong federal standards to safeguard our waterways, coal-burning power plants will keep sending toxic sludge into rivers and streams, which provide recreation, habitat to fish and wildlife, and drinking water sources.