Toxic Coal Ash in Maryland: 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. Maryland has 21 coal ash dumpsites, 18 of which were unregulated.

Maryland’s legacy of harm from coal ash includes the poisoning of drinking water with heavy metals in Gambrills, MD, an environmental justice community.

After years of litigation and grassroots activism, on Apr. 25, 2024, the EPA issued a new rule that will force power plants to finally clean up their toxic coal ash. The EPA extended federal monitoring and cleanup requirements to hundreds of previously excluded older coal ash landfills and ponds that have been leaking toxic pollution into groundwater.

Note: Coal ash dumpsites referenced as “unregulated” throughout this page now are likely subject to federal regulation under the final rulemaking.

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. In 2023, the EPA acknowledged that coal ash is even more dangerous than previously thought, with levels of arsenic and radiation that pose cancer risks.

Industry’s own data indicate that across the country 91% of coal plants are currently polluting groundwater above federal health standards with toxic pollutants.

Despite EPA’s 2015 Coal Ash Rule, which created the first-ever safeguards for coal ash disposal, many coal ash dumps remained 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 extended clean up requirements to hundreds of old coal ash dumps across the country when it issued new regulations in the spring of 2024.

Boats are docked in the shadow of the coal-fired Morgantown Generating Station in Newburg, Maryland, in 2014.
The coal-fired Morgantown Generating Station in Newburg, Maryland, in 2014. (Mark Wilson / Getty Images)

Coal ash remains one of our nation’s largest toxic industrial waste streams. U.S. coal plants continue to produce approximately 75 million tons every year.

In 2023, the EPA acknowledged widespread noncompliance with existing coal ash regulations and ramped up enforcement after designating coal ash a national enforcement priority.

Action Needed

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 act quickly to ensure that utilities leave communities with sites that benefit rather than harm their health, environment, and economic status.
  • EPA must take action to prohibit the use of coal ash as construction fill and make polluters clean up areas where ash was used as fill.
Coal ash dump sites across the United States. Use this map to understand where coal ash might be stored near you and how a given site may be impacted by EPA's expansion of the federal Coal Ash Rule. (Caroline Weinberg / Earthjustice)

Three Regulated Coal Ash Landfills in Maryland

Maryland utilities currently operate three federally regulated coal ash landfills that contain more than 6.1 million cubic yards (12.2 billion pounds) of toxic waste.

One of the three dumps, the Brandywine Ash Management Facility, located 19 miles southeast of Washington, D.C., is the seventh most contaminated coal ash site in the nation.

The site contaminates groundwater with unsafe levels of eight pollutants, including lithium at more than 200 times recommended levels, and molybdenum (which may damage the liver and kidneys) at more than 100 times recommended levels.

The Maryland utilities that own the dumps have yet to initiate any cleanups to restore water resources despite the legal requirement to do so.

Brandywine Ash Management Facility Aquasco GenOn 1 landfill (1.4 million cubic yards) Arsenic (x5), Beryllium (x2), Boron (x29), Cobalt (x47), Lithium (x222), Molybdenum (x111), Selenium (x9), Sulfate (x11)
Fort Armistead Road Baltimore Talen 1 landfill (903,400 cubic yards) No data on constituents exceeding standards
Westland Ash Mgmt Dickerson GenOn 1 landfill (>3.8 million cubic yds) Boron (x5), Lithium (x21), Molybdenum (x30), Selenium (x6), 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 Maryland, see Mapping the Coal Ash Contamination.

18 Coal Ash Legacy Ponds and Inactive Landfills in Maryland

March 2024 Update: The table below underestimates the legacy units that may be regulated by EPA’s upcoming CCR Legacy Pond Rule. Additional legacy units at specific plants may be found in the national map, above.

In addition, Maryland hosts at least 18 inactive coal ash landfills and legacy ponds that escaped federal regulation. The exact number remains unknown because utilities were not required to report these sites..

One, the “unregulated” portion of the Brandywine facility, is 190 acres and contains nearly 8 million tons of ash. It is estimated that these unregulated landfills contain about 20–25 million tons of coal ash.

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.

Brandywine Ash Management Facility Aquasco GenOn 0 1 Yes – EPA damage case
AES Warrior Run Cogen Facility Cumberland AES WR Ltd 1 0 Unknown – no data
CP Crane Bowley’s quarters Baltimore Gas & Electric 0 1 Unknown – no data
Cumberland Site 1* Allegany County Cumberland Power Plant 0 1 Unknown – no data
Cumberland Site 2* Allegany County Cumberland Power Plant 0 1 Unknown – no data
Joppa Sand and Gravel Site* Harford Co Wagner Power Plant 0 1 Unknown – no data
Morgantown Newburg GenOn Mid-Atlantic 0 2 Yes – EPA damage case
R Paul Smith Power Station Williamsport Allegheny Energy Supply 2 1 Unknown – no data
Riverside Site* Baltimore Co. Riverside Power Plant 0 1 Unknown – no data
Rossville Industrial Park* Baltimore City Baltimore Gas & Electric 0 1 Unknown – no data
Turner Pit (West)* Anne Arundel Co. Brandon Shores & Wagner 0 1 Yes – EPA damage case
Vienna Site 2* Dorchester Co Vienna Power plant 1 0 Unknown – no data
Waugh Chapel Pit* Anne Arundel Co Brandon Shores & Wagner 0 1 Yes – EPA damage case
Westport Site 1* Baltimore City Westport power 0 1 Unknown – no data
Westport Site 2* Baltimore City Westport power 0 1 Unknown – no data

* Data on these unregulated landfills are found in Maryland Department of Natural Resources, Coal Combustion By-Product Storage, Use, and Disposal Sites in Maryland (Aug 2019).

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.

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.