Toxic Coal Ash in Massachusetts: 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. A majority of coal ash dumpsites in Massachusetts are exempt from federal regulation.

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.

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. After years of litigation and grassroots activism, the EPA will extend clean up requirements to hundreds of old coal ash dumps across the country when it issues new regulations in the spring of 2024.

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

The sun peeks over the horizon next to the Brayton Point Power Station in Somerset, Mass., in 2012.
Brayton Point Power Station in Somerset, Mass., in 2012. (Denis Tangney Jr. / Getty Images)

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 Disposal Sites in Massachusetts

Massachusetts company Brayton Point LLC operates three federally regulated coal ash ponds at the retired Brayton Point Power Station, which was once the largest coal-fired power plant in New England.

When operational, the station generated 300,000 tons of coal ash per year.[1] This dump has caused significant groundwater contamination.

However, Brayton Point LLC has yet to complete a comprehensive cleanup to restore water resources.

Brayton Point Somerset Brayton Point LLC 3 unlined ponds Arsenic (x1), Lithium (x2), Molybdenum (x1)

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 Massachusetts, see Mapping the Coal Ash Contamination.

15 Unregulated Coal Ash Legacy Ponds and Inactive Landfills in Massachusetts (ash dumps exempted from the 2015 Coal Ash Rule)

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, Massachusetts hosts at least 15 unregulated inactive coal ash landfills and legacy ponds at three facilities that escape federal regulation. 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.

Brayton Point Somerset Brayton Point LLC 0 5 Yes – industry data
Mount Tom Holyoke FirstLight Power Resources Services LLC 5 1 Unknown
Somerset Station Somerset Somerset Power LLC 4 0 Unknown

Brayton Point's evidence of site contamination: All data derived from the utilities’ publicly accessible CCR Compliance Data and Information websites, and exceedances were calculated by Environmental Integrity Project.

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.

For More Information

Christine Santillana, Legislative Counsel, Earthjustice, csantillana@earthjustice.org

Lisa Evans, Senior Counsel, Earthjustice, levans@earthjustice.org.

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.