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New Rule Will Force Cleanup of Hundreds of Toxic Coal Ash Dump Sites

What happened: The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) finalized a new rule that will force power plants across the country to clean up hundreds of coal ash dumps that have been leaking toxic pollution into groundwater. A major victory for communities living near coal ash plants, the rule closes a loophole that left over half of coal ash exempt from federal clean-up requirements.

Why it matters: For decades, power plants disposed of coal ash – the hazardous substances left after burning coal for energy – by dumping it in unlined ponds and landfills that leaked into groundwater and nearby surface waters. For 18 years, Earthjustice has fought to protect communities living near coal-fired power plants from toxic coal ash waste.

An Earthjustice lawsuit compelled the EPA to adopt its first-ever safeguards to protect people from toxic coal ash in 2015, but the rule excluded landfills and waste piles that stopped receiving coal ash before the rule went into effect. The loophole allowed coal plant operators to evade cleanup responsibilities for all coal ash at many power plant sites. The EPA’s new, finalized safeguards close that loophole.

As aging coal power plants across the United States retire, the companies that profited from burning coal for decades will now be forced to clean up their toxic messes thanks to this new rule.

The dangers of coal ash

  • What is coal ash? Coal ash is what is left behind when power plants burn coal for energy; it is a toxic mix of carcinogens, neurotoxins, and other hazardous pollutants. U.S. coal plants continue to produce approximately 75 million tons of coal ash every year.
  • Coal ash can harm every major human organ: The pollutants in coal ash can cause cancer, kidney disease, and reproductive harm, and damage the nervous system, especially in children.
  • Coal ash is disproportionately located in low-income communities and communities of color.
  • Coal ash contaminates our drinking water: Power plant owners across the country have avoided and delayed cleaning up coal ash. As a result, an estimated 91 percent of coal plants are contaminating groundwater with toxic pollutants.

The EPA is closing a dangerous loophole

  • Gaps in the prior rule: The 2015 Coal Ash Rule excluded landfills and waste piles that stopped receiving coal ash before the rule went into effect. That left about half of all coal ash in the U.S. — more than half a billion tons — exempt from any measures to protect humans or the environment.
  • How many coal ash dumps were excluded? By analyzing data that coal plants reported to the EPA, Earthjustice found that 320 coal plants in 41 states were dodging cleanup requirements via the loophole.
  • Impact on water: At many legacy coal ash sites, the EPA found that coal ash contaminated groundwater, but the agency still did not require monitoring or cleanup. Under the new rule, these dumpsites will be regulated.
  • The new coal ash rule will also require power plant owners to ensure that these toxic coal ash dumps do not pollute drinking water and waterways.

Why the new EPA rule is a big victory for communities

  • Holding coal plants accountable: Thanks to the EPA’s strengthened regulations, coal plants will be forced to clean up their toxic legacy. The new EPA rule will require power plant owners to monitor and clean up all coal ash dumps at a plant and not let them evade regulations.
  • Time for action: Now that the EPA requires effective cleanup of coal ash at power plant sites, the agency must move quickly to enforce the rule and stop the flow of toxic releases from hundreds of leaking coal ash dumps. (For more information about cleaning up coal ash, read our report.)
  • Keeping promises: The EPA designated coal ash a national enforcement priority last year and has ramped up enforcement actions, acknowledging that there is widespread noncompliance with existing coal ash regulations. Now that those regulations have been strengthened, the EPA can finally force power plants to clean up their toxic waste.
  • Advocacy made an impact: More than 30,000 Earthjustice supporters wrote to the EPA to urge it to close the dangerous loophole in the coal ash rule and require cleanup at all the nation’s leaking coal ash sites.

Join us in thanking EPA Administrator Regan and President Biden for listening to communities poisoned by coal ash and strengthening safeguards.

A power plant with tall smoke stacks sits in the distance, looming over at watery marsh in the foreground.
The now-closed Waukegan Generating Station, on the shore of Lake Michigan in Waukegan, Illinois. The coal fired power plant still has unregulated coal ash ponds threatening the environment. (Jamie Kelter Davis for Earthjustice)