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EPA Closes Toxic Coal Ash Loophole – But Not Entirely

The situation: The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is finally addressing a regulatory loophole that has allowed coal power plants to evade cleaning up their toxic waste.

Why it matters: The agency’s new draft rule on coal ash still leaves some dump sites unregulated. These sites pose a risk to ground water and public health. We will need your help to get all communities protected.

The coal ash problem

  • Dangerous pollution: Coal ash is the toxic waste left behind after companies burn coal for energy. Exposure to coal ash pollutants has been linked to cancer, heart and thyroid disease, reproductive failure, and neurological harm.
  • Reckless disposal: For decades, utilities disposed of coal ash by dumping it in unlined ponds, landfills, and mines where the toxic pollution leaks into groundwater.
  • Imperfect regulation: In response to an Earthjustice lawsuit, the EPA adopted its first-ever coal ash safeguards in 2015. But the agency excluded coal ash disposed in hundreds of “legacy ponds” and “inactive landfills.” Over two-thirds of them are located in low-income areas and communities of color (see map).
  • Water impacted: At many of these legacy dump sites, the EPA already determined that coal ash has contaminated groundwater, but there are no federal monitoring, closure, or cleanup requirements.
  • Earthjustice fights: On behalf of public interest groups, Earthjustice sued the EPA twice to close different parts of this loophole.

Closing a loophole, but not all the way

Earthjustice succeeded with both lawsuits, prompting the EPA to release a new draft rule on May 17 to address the legacy coal ash ponds and inactive landfills. The revised rule extends federal monitoring, closure, and cleanup requirements to hundreds of previously excluded older landfills and dump sites. It also makes it harder for coal power companies to evade their responsibility to deal with leaching coal ash.

But the proposed rule still fails to extend regulations to all coal ash dump sites at former coal plants. Earthjustice estimates the new rule would still exempt dozens of former power plant sites. The rule also does not address coal ash that was used as construction fill at playgrounds, schools, and throughout neighborhoods.

How you can help

  • There is an in-person hearing planned for June 28 in Chicago as well as a virtual hearing.
  • You can submit public comment during the 60-day public comment period and public hearings using the form below.


Bulldozers pushing black coal ash, photographed from above
Coal ash pollution in the Arrowhead Landfill in Perry County, Alabama. (John Wathen)