May 3, 2023
Toxic Coal Ash in Kentucky: Addressing Coal Plants’ Hazardous Legacy
For decades, utilities disposed of coal ash — the hazardous substance left after burning coal for energy — by dumping it in unlined ponds and landfills. Kentucky has 68 coal ash dumpsites.
Kentucky is one of the nation’s top coal ash-generating states, ranking fourth in ash production in 2020.
Coal ash contains hazardous pollutants including arsenic, boron, cobalt, chromium, lead, lithium, mercury, molybdenum, radium, selenium, and other heavy metals, which have been linked to cancer, heart and thyroid disease, reproductive failure, and neurological harm.
Industry’s own data indicate that across the country 91% of coal plants are currently polluting groundwater above federal health standards with toxic pollutants.
Coal ash remains one of our nation’s largest toxic industrial waste streams. U.S. coal plants continue to produce approximately 70 million tons every year.
Despite EPA’s 2015 Coal Ash Rule, which created the first-ever safeguards for coal ash disposal, many coal ash dumps remain unregulated due to sweeping exemptions for legacy coal ash ponds and inactive landfills.
The exempted coal ash dumps are sited disproportionately in low-income communities and communities of color. The EPA issued a proposed rule to address most of these exemptions on May 17, 2023.
The magnitude of harm from recklessly dumped toxic coal ash requires decisive action from federal and state regulators.
- Utilities must be required to comply with the law and immediately clean up their pollution.
- EPA and states must make enforcement a priority and act quickly to ensure that utilities leave communities with sites that benefit rather than harm their health, environment, and economic status.
- EPA must swiftly strengthen the Coal Ash Rule to address the many legacy ponds and inactive landfills that are unregulated, and to prohibit coal ash used as fill unless protective measures are put in place, to ensure all Kentucky communities are protected from coal ash pollution.
43 Regulated Coal Ash Disposal Sites in Kentucky
Kentucky utilities operate 43 federally regulated coal ash ponds and landfills at 15 plants that contain in total more than 200 million cubic yards of toxic waste.
Coal ash has caused significant groundwater contamination at all of Kentucky’s regulated dumpsites, and a third of the plants are in the top 25% of the nation’s most contaminated ash sites.
Most Kentucky plants — 86% — are located in areas that are disproportionately low-income or nonwhite or both.
Kentucky utilities have failed to initiate any plant-wide cleanups to restore water resources despite the legal requirement to do so.
|Big Sandy||Louisa||AEP||2 unlined ponds||Beryllium (x5), Boron (x1), Cobalt (x15), Lithium (x6), Radium 226+228 (x3), Sulfate (x1)|
|Cane Run||Louisville||Louisville Gas & Electric||1 unlined pond||Arsenic (x2), Boron (x2), Lithium (x3), Sulfate (x1)|
|Cooper||Somerset||East KY Power Coop||1 landfill||Lithium (x5), Molybdenum (x1)|
|DB Wilson||Centertown||Big Rivers Electric||1 landfill||Cobalt (x17), Lithium (x1), Sulfate (x4)|
|EW Brown||Harrodsburg||KY Utilities Co||1 unlined pond, 1 landfill||Arsenic (x8), Boron (x3), Lithium (x5), Molybdenum (x4), Sulfate x3|
|East Bend||Union||Duke||1 unlined pond, 2 landfills||Lithium (x15), Sulfate (x2)|
|Elmer Smith||Owensboro||Owensboro Muni||1 unlined pond||Boron (x7), Lithium (x1), Molybdenum (x57), Selenium (x1), Sulfate (x1)|
|Ghent||Ghent||KY Utilities Co||5 unlined ponds, 1 landfill||Antimony (x1), Arsenic (x2), Beryllium (x1), Boron (x6), Chromium (x3), Cobalt (x8), Lead (x3), Lithium (x145), Molybdenum (x18), Radium 226+228 (x30), Sulfate (x3), Thallium (x1)|
|HL Spurlock||Maysville||East KY Power Coop||1 unlined pond, 2 landfills||Boron (x2), Mercury (x2), Molybdenum (x3), Sulfate (x1)|
|JK Smith||Winchester||East KY Power Coop||1 landfill||Lithium (x12), Radium 226+228 (x1), Sulfate (x2)|
|Mill Creek||Louisville||Louisville Gas & Electric||5 unlined ponds, 1 landfill||Arsenic (x37), Boron (x4), Lithium (x12), Molybdenum (x17), Sulfate (x3)|
|Paradise||Drakesboro||TVA||6 unlined ponds, 1 landfill||Arsenic (x9), Boron (x21), Molybdenum (x1)|
|Sebree||Robards||Big Rivers Electric||2 unlined ponds, 1 landfill||Arsenic (x2), Lithium (x35), Mercury (x135), Sulfate (x5)|
|Shawnee||West Paducah||TVA||1 unlined pond, 2 landfills||Boron (x2), Molybdenum (x3)|
|Trimble Co||Bedford||Louisville Gas & Electric||1 unlined pond, 1 lined pond, 1 landfill||Arsenic (x4), Boron (x65), Fluoride (x1), Lithium (x54), Molybdenum (x68), Selenium (x9), Sulfate (x2)|
All data on groundwater contamination from coal ash derived from the utilities’ publicly accessible CCR Compliance Data and Information websites, and exceedances were calculated by Environmental Integrity Project.
For more information on regulated coal ash sites in Kentucky and throughout the U.S., see Mapping the Coal Ash Contamination.
25 Unregulated Coal Ash Legacy Ponds and Inactive Landfills in Kentucky (ash dumps exempted from the 2015 Coal Ash Rule)
In addition, Kentucky hosts at least 25 unregulated inactive coal ash landfills and legacy ponds at 12 active and retired coal plants. The exact number remains unknown because utilities are not required to report these sites.
These dumps are almost certainly contaminating water and threatening health and the environment; however, monitoring data are not currently available for most unregulated sites.
As we anticipate EPA’s proposed rule on legacy ponds and unregulated landfills in May 2023, a concern remains that the agency will not address coal ash that was dumped off site or used as fill.
|Big Sandy||Louisa||AEP||0||1||Yes – Industry data|
|Cane Run||Louisville||Louisville Gas & Elec||0||2||Yes – Industry data|
|DB Wilson||Centertown||Big Rivers Electric||0||1||Yes – Industry data|
|Dale||Ford||East KY Power Coop||3||0||Unknown – no data|
|Green River||Central City||Kentucky Utilities||5||0||Unknown – no data|
|Kenneth Coleman||Hawesville||Big Rivers Electric||3||0||Unknown – no data|
|KU Pineville||Pineville||LG&E and KU||1||0||Unknown- no data|
|Mill Creek||Louisville||Louisville Gas & Electric||0||2||Yes – Industry data, EPA damage case|
|Paradise||Drakesboro||TVA||0||2||Yes – industry data|
|Sebree||Robard||Big Rivers Electric||0||1||Unknown- no data|
|Shawnee||West Paducah||TVA||0||1||Yes – industry data, EPA damage case|
|Tyrone||Versailles||Kentucky Utilities||3||0||Unknown – no data|
These data were developed by using EPA datasets relied upon in their 2007 and 2014 CCR risk assessments (Human and Ecological Risk Assessment of Coal Combustion Residuals) and comparing those datasets to the universe of regulated units.
“EPA damage case” denotes a site where US EPA has found documented groundwater contamination from coal ash.
All data on evidence of site contamination derived from the utilities’ publicly accessible CCR Compliance Data and Information websites, and exceedances were calculated by Environmental Integrity Project.
For More Information
Christine Santillana, Legislative Counsel, Earthjustice, email@example.com
Lisa Evans, Senior Counsel, Earthjustice, firstname.lastname@example.org.
More on Coal Ash in Kentucky
- Poisonous Coverup: The Widespread Failure of the Power Industry to Clean Up Coal Ash Dumps (November 3, 2022)
- Earthjustice Sues Kentucky Agency To Compel Release of Documents Related to Pollution at E.W. Brown Generating Station (August 22, 2018)
- We’re Fighting to Keep Coal out of a Kentucky Lake (January 29, 2018)
- Kentucky Utilities Announces It Will Phase Out Coal and Continue Transition to Clean Energy (November 14, 2017)
- Groups Sue To Protect Herrington Lake from Toxic Waste (July 12, 2017)
- Agreement Reached Over Water Discharge Dispute at LG&E’s Mill Creek Power Plant (September 23, 2016)
- Florida, Kentucky Rivers Poisoned by Coal Ash (June 10, 2014)
Coal Ash in States, Territories, Regions
Earthjustice fights in the courts for a long-term solution to the toxic menace of coal ash. And we act on behalf of dozens of clients and over 100 coalition partners to defeat legislative attempts to subvert federally enforceable safeguards of coal ash.
Earthjustice’s Clean Energy Program uses the power of the law and the strength of partnership to accelerate the transition to 100% clean energy.