The scope of the waste stream coming out of coal-fired power plants is almost unimaginable: hundreds of thousands of tons of air pollution and nearly 280 billion pounds of toxic coal sludge dumped into our environment every year. The chemicals released in this waste stream can cause cancer, damage to the nervous system, heart and lung problems and other debilitating illness.
For decades, no federal regulation existed to deal with these emissions—leaving Americans to foot the bill for coal plants’ pollution in the form of higher medical bills. Lack of federal oversight is still the case for coal ash, the toxic substance that remains after coal is burned. But even strong, new standards to cut toxic air pollution from coal plants are not assured, as industry has mounted aggressive challenges to see them undone.
In 2008, coal ash flooded into the American psyche when a coal ash dam burst at the Kingston Fossil Plant in Kingston, Tennessee—burying the local environment and community beneath 1.1 billion gallons of toxic sludge, a $3 billion clean up job. Currently, there are 309 high and significant hazard coal ash dams that could easily fail and cause environmental, economic and public health damage on the scale of the Kingston disaster.
Earthjustice is addressing waste and emissions by:
- Fighting for federal regulation of air pollutants released by coal plants. This includes national regulations for soot and ozone that cover a wide range of industries, including coal plants, as well as targeted regulations that go after coal plants’ emissions of mercury and other hazardous air pollutants. Our work also includes efforts to ensure that states actually implement stringent federal air pollution requirements that impact coal plants. Earthjustice is also defending the EPA’s determination that greenhouse gases from cars and other motor vehicles endanger public health. The ruling creates powerful legal precedent and a more secure future for upcoming regulation of carbon pollution from new and existing plants.
- Pursuing the first-ever federal regulations to control the disposal of coal ash, the toxic waste that remains after coal is burned. This work also includes efforts to crack down on the egregious water pollution released by a handful of the nation’s most notorious and dirty coal plants.
- Limiting coal plant pollution by protecting visibility in special places. For many years, Earthjustice’s attorneys have worked to enforce provisions of the Clean Air Act that require states to develop pollution-control plans to protect special places, such as national parks and wilderness areas, from air pollution that leads to regional haze and impaired visibility. This ongoing work to compel effective implementation of the Clean Air Act's haze program dovetails with our campaign to reduce dependence on coal plants and our longstanding commitment to protect public lands across the West. Our attorneys are working in concert at both the federal and state level to ensure that the haze provisions are enforced to greatest impact in key regions. This work is already bearing fruit in the form of announced and likely coal plant retirements in many western states including Washington, Nevada, and New Mexico.