Clean up toxic coal ash pits

What's At Stake

When coal is burned to produce electricity, a toxic waste known as coal ash is left behindFilled with hazardous metals and toxic pollutants such as arsenic, lithium, lead, and other carcinogens and neurotoxins, coal ash poisons our water, sickens our bodies, and kills fish and wildlife. Tell the Environmental Protection Agency: Time to close the loophole that left over half a billion tons of toxic coal ash in landfills and ponds exempt from federal oversight.

Often, coal ash was placed in unlined pits or “ponds,” which may contain tens of millions of tons of dangerous waste. These pits leak toxic waste into underlying groundwater and nearby surface waters. As polluting coal-burning power plants shut down, the companies who profited for decades must clean up their toxic legacy. A sustainable energy future must include the comprehensive cleanup of hazardous sites created by the burning of fossil fuels. 

In 2015, the Environmental Protection Agency adopted its first-ever safeguards to protect people from toxic coal ash after a lawsuit was brought by Earthjustice. But the agency left over a half billion tons of toxic coal ash exempt from federal safeguards. The majority of exempted coal ash dumps are located disproportionately in low-income communities and communities of color. 

In the spring of 2023, the EPA agreed to address aspects of the 2015 Coal Ash Rule that left half of coal ash unregulated and effectively allowed coal plants to dodge cleaning up toxic coal ash across the country.  

As the EPA works to finalize these reforms by next year, there are a few things they need to do. The EPA must ensure the rule is clear, enforceable, and applied to all coal ash, so utilities cannot avoid cleaning up any toxic waste. It doesn’t matter when or where it’s been dumped; it needs to be dealt with.

Coal ash pits and ponds have failed catastrophically and dumped millions of tons of toxic waste into rivers and lakes. More than 50 workers have died cleaning up toxic ash.

The EPA recently made coal ash one of the agency’s top enforcement priorities to ensure that utilities are complying with federal health protections. At nearly every coal plant in the U.S., plant owners are evading safeguards and failing to clean up dangerous and polluting coal ash. The EPA pledged to investigate and take action against coal ash facilities that are violating the law. Now they need to extend those safeguards to all coal ash dump sites. 

There is no time to waste. Climate change is increasing the threat of another coal ash catastrophe as groundwater and surface water levels rise, and extreme weather events and flooding increase, especially in the Midwest and Southeast. The EPA must ensure cleanup of all coal ash dumps in floodplains to prevent another catastrophic spill. The companies that profited from burning coal for decades must not be allowed to walk away  hundreds of coal ash dumps leaking toxic waste into drinking water sources and our lakes, rivers and streams. We can no longer allow coal ash to put nearby communities and their waterways and drinking water at great risk. 

The NIPSCO R.M. Schahfer Generating Station in Wheatfield, IN,
The NIPSCO R.M. Schahfer Generating Station in Wheatfield, IN, (Alex Garcia for Earthjustice)

Delivery to EPA Administrator Michael Regan

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