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.

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.

FirstEnergy's Little Blue Run coal ash impoundment, built in 1975 and containing coal ash from the Bruce Mansfield Power Plant, is the largest unlined coal ash pond in the United States, spanning Pennsylvania and West Virginia.
FirstEnergy's Little Blue Run coal ash impoundment, built in 1975 and containing coal ash from the Bruce Mansfield Power Plant, is the largest unlined coal ash pond in the United States, spanning Pennsylvania and West Virginia. (Chris Jordan-Bloch / Earthjustice)

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)

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 Coal Ash Legacy Ponds and Inactive Landfills in Pennsylvania

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.

The number of unregulated coal ash dumps in Pennsylvania was more than double the number that are regulated.

Pennsylvania utilities host at least 48  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.

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.

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.