May 3, 2023
Toxic Coal Ash in Pennsylvania: 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. Pennsylvania is one of the nation’s top coal ash-generating states, with 70 coal ash dumpsites.
Pennsylvania ranked ninth in the U.S. in coal 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 Pennsylvania communities are protected from coal ash pollution.
22 Regulated Coal Ash Disposal Sites in Pennsylvania
Pennsylvania utilities operate 22 federally regulated coal ash ponds and landfills at 10 plants that contain more than 284 million cubic yards of toxic waste.
At all but one of Pennsylvania’s coal plants, industry monitoring data indicate coal ash has caused significant groundwater contamination at regulated dumpsites.
Pennsylvania utilities have failed to initiate any plant-wide cleanups to restore water resources despite the legal requirement to do so.
|Bruce Mansfield||Shippingport||Energy Harbor Gen||1 unlined pond (>129 M CY)||Arsenic (x7), Barium (x13), Boron (x2), Lithium (x8), Molybdenum (x1), Sulfate (x5)|
|Brunner Island*||York Haven||Talen Energy||1 unlined pond, 1 landfill (4.1 M CY)||Arsenic (x23), Cobalt (x14), Lithium (x5), Molybdenum (x8), Sulfate (x1)|
|Cheswick||Cheswick||GenOn||2 unlined ponds, 1 landfill (3.7 M CY)||Boron (x1), Lithium (x1), Molybdenum (x2)|
|Conemaugh||New Florence||GenOn||4 unlined ponds, 1 landfill (67 M CY)||Cobalt (x18), Sulfate (x2)|
|Hatfield’s Ferry||Masontown||Energy Harbor Gen||1 landfill (16.4 M CY)||Boron (x8), Cobalt (x49), Sulfate (x4)|
|Homer||Homer City||NRG||1 landfill (20.6 M CY)||Lithium (x5)|
|Keystone||Shelocta||GenOn||2 unlined ponds, 1 lined pond, 1 landfill (>29M CY)||Historical industry data indicate exceedances of arsenic, cadmium, chromium, lead, manganese, selenium, sulfate|
|Montour||Washingtonville||Talen Energy||1 unlined pond, 1 landfill (>14.5 M CY)||Cobalt (x3), Lithium (x4), Sulfate (x3)|
|New Castle||West Pittsburg||GenOn||1 unlined pond, 1 landfill (1.4 M CY)||Arsenic (x372), Boron (x4), Cobalt (x5), Lithium (x54), Molybdenum (x1), Sulfate (x3)|
|Sunbury||Shamokin Dam||Sunbury Gen||1 unlined pond ( > 1.9 M CY)||Data not evaluated|
* Brunner Island operates inactive coal ash ponds at the facility but has not reported the ponds on its CCR Rule Compliance Data and Information website nor has the owner complied with the CCR rule’s requirements that apply to these ponds, including groundwater monitoring, closure, and corrective action. This is also the case at GenOn’s Shawville Plant in Woodland, PA.
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 Pennsylvania, see Mapping the Coal Ash Contamination.
48 Unregulated Coal Ash Legacy Ponds and Inactive Landfills in Pennsylvania (ash dumps exempted from the 2015 Coal Ash Rule)
The number of unregulated coal ash dumps in Pennsylvania is more than double the number that are regulated.
Pennsylvania utilities host at least 48 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 in May 2023 and unregulated landfills, a concern remains that the agency will not address coal ash that was dumped off-site or used as fill — as often occurred in Pennsylvania.
|Conemaugh||New Florence||GenOn||0||2||Yes – Industry data|
|Elrama||Elrama||GenOn Power MW LP||4||0||Unknown- no data|
|Fern Valley Landfill (Received ash from Elrama plant)||Elrama||Orion Power Holdings||0||1||Yes – EPA damage case|
|Armstrong||Washington Twp||Allegheny Energy Supply||0||2||Unknown- no data|
|Mitchell||Courtney||Allegheny Energy Supply||2||2||Yes – EPA damage case|
|Mt Carmel Cogen||Mt Carmel||Mt Carmel Cogen Inc||0||1||Unknown- no data|
|Hatfield’s Ferry||Masontown||Energy Harbor Gen||0||1||Yes – EPA damage case|
|Holtwood*||Holtwood||PPL Holtwood, LLC||1||0||Unknown—no data|
|Homer City||Homer City||NRG||0||2||Yes – Industry data|
|Hunlock||Hunlock Creek||Allegheny Energy Supply||2||0||Yes – EPA damage case|
|Keystone||Shelocta||GenOn||0||3||Yes – Industry data|
|Martins Creek||Bangor||Talen Energy||4||0||Yes – EPA damage case|
|Portland||Mt Bethel||GenOn REMA LLC||3||4||Yes – EPA damage case|
|Montour||Washingtonville||Talen Energy||0||1||Yes – Industry data|
|Shawville||Woodland||GenOn REMA LLC||0||2||Unknown – no data|
|Sunbury*||Shamokin Dam||Sunbury Gen||0||2||Unknown—no data|
|Titus||Birdsboro||GenOn REMA LLC||2||4||Unknown – no data|
|Frackville||Frackville||Wheelbrator Env’tl||1||0||Unknown – no data|
|Westwood Gen||Tremont||WPS Power Development||0||1||Unknown – no data|
* Data on Plants Holtwood's and Sunbury's unregulated landfills and ponds found in Inventory of Chesapeake Bay Watershed Coal Ash Deposits (December 2021).
“Industry data”: Historical industry monitoring data is the basis of the finding of contamination. See Ashtracker.
“EPA damage case” denotes a site where US EPA has found documented groundwater contamination from coal ash.
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.
For More Information
Christine Santillana, Legislative Counsel, Earthjustice, firstname.lastname@example.org
Lisa Evans, Senior Counsel, Earthjustice, email@example.com.
More on Coal Ash in Pennsylvania
- EPA Moves to Reject Six Coal Plants’ Applications to Keep Toxic Coal Ash Dumps Open (January 25, 2023)
- Poisonous Coverup: The Widespread Failure of the Power Industry to Clean Up Coal Ash Dumps (November 3, 2022)
- New safeguards at Hatfield’s Ferry coal ash landfill (September 20, 2017)
- Environmental Groups Urge Pennsylvania to Deny FirstEnergy’s Toxic Coal Ash Dumping Permit (June 3, 2015)
- Short Film Released About American Dreams Turned Into Toxic Nightmare (October 17, 2014)
- The Insanity of Pennsylvania Coal Ash (November 27, 2013)
- Tr-Ash Talk: Penn. Latinos Endure Toxic Neighbor (September 26, 2013)
- Impacts on Water Quality from Placement of Coal Combustion Waste in Pennsylvania Coal Mines (September 2007)
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.