Toxic Coal Ash in New Mexico: 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. New Mexico has eight coal ash dumpsites.

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 will issue a proposed rule to address these exemptions in May 2023.

The Four Corners coal-fired power plant in New Mexico.
The Four Corners coal-fired power plant near Shiprock, New Mexico, in 2017. (Buddy Mays / 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 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 New Mexico communities are protected from coal ash pollution.
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)

Six Regulated Coal Ash Disposal Sites in New Mexico

New Mexico utilities operate six federally regulated coal ash ponds and landfills containing more than 20 million cubic yards of toxic waste at two coal plants.

Four Corners Power Plant, on Navajo Nation land, is the 19th most contaminated coal ash site in the U.S., and at all New Mexico plants where data are available, groundwater is contaminated above federal health standards.

Despite the serious and widespread water contamination, no New Mexico plant, to date, has selected a final plan to adequately clean up groundwater, despite the legal requirement to do so.

Escalante Prewitt Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association, Inc. 1 landfill Arsenic (x3), Lithium (x15)
Four Corners Fruitland Arizona Public Service Co. 4 unlined ponds, 1 landfill Boron (x74), Chromium (x1), Cobalt (x45), Fluoride (x6), Lead (x2), Lithium (x23), Molybdenum (x4), Radium 226+228 (x5), Selenium (x2), Sulfate (x22)

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 Alabama and throughout the U.S., see Mapping the Coal Ash Contamination.

Two Unregulated Coal Ash Legacy Ponds and Inactive Landfills in New Mexico (ash dumps exempted from the 2015 Coal Ash Rule)

In addition, New Mexico hosts at least two unregulated inactive coal ash landfills and legacy ponds 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.

Four Corners Fruitland Arizona Public Service Co. 0 1 Yes – Industry data
San Juan Waterflow Public Service Co. of NM 1 0 Unknown

Four Corners' evidence of site contamination: 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.

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.