Toxic Coal Ash in West Virginia: 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. West Virginia has 48 coal ash dumpsites.

West Virginia is one of the nation’s top coal ash-generating states, ranking fifth in 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.

Aerial drone view of the Fort Martin coal-fired power station near Morgantown in West Virginia, in the late autumn, in 2020.
The Fort Martin coal-fired power station near Morgantown in West Virginia, in 2020. (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 West Virginia 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)

14 Federally Regulated Coal Ash Disposal Sites in West Virginia

West Virginia utilities operate 14 regulated coal ash ponds and landfills at seven plants that contain more than 163 million cubic yards of toxic waste.

Coal ash has caused significant groundwater contamination at all of West Virginia’s regulated dumpsites.

In addition, West Virginia coal ash dumps are some of the largest in the U.S.; six of the state’s 14 dump sites contain over 10 million cubic yards of toxic ash.

Despite the threat and harm caused to groundwater, West Virginia utilities have failed to initiate any effective site-wide cleanups to restore water resources despite the legal requirement to do so.

Fort Martin Maidsville Monongahela Power 1 landfill Arsenic (x1), Boron (x2), Lithium (x1), Molybdenum (x1), Sulfate (x2)
Harrison Haywood Monongahela Power 1 landfill Arsenic (x2), Mercury (x1), Molybdenum (x4), Sulfate (x3)
John Amos St. Albans AEP 2 unlined ponds, 1 landfill Cobalt (x4), Molybdenum (x3)
Mitchell Captina AEP 1 unlined pond, 1 landfill Arsenic (x1), Boron (x6), Molybdenum (x2)
Mount Storm Mount Storm Dominion 1 unlined pond, 2 landfills Beryllium (x1), Cobalt (x8), Fluoride (x1), Molybdenum (x2)
Mountaineer New Haven AEP 1 unlined pond, 1 landfill Boron (x5), Lithium (x3), Molybdenum (x2), Sulfate (x2)
Pleasants Power Willow Island Allegheny Energy 1 unlined pond, 1 landfill Barium (x4), Lithium (x2), Radium 226+228 (x9)

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

34 Unregulated Coal Ash Legacy Ponds and Inactive Landfills in West Virginia (ash dumps exempted from the 2015 Coal Ash Rule)

In addition, West Virginia hosts at least 34 unregulated inactive coal ash landfills and legacy ponds that escape federal regulation. Utilities created at least 34 unregulated inactive coal ash landfills and legacy ponds at 10 active and retired coal plants. 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.

Albright Albright Monongahela Power 2 2 Yes – Industry data
Fort Martin Maidsville Monongahela Power 0 2 Yes – Industry data
Rivesville Rivesville Monongahela Power 4 2 Unknown – no data
Willow Island Willow Island Monongahela Power 1 1 Unknown – no data
Grant Town Grant Town American Bituminous Power 5 3 Unknown – no data
John E Amos St. Albans AEP 0 1 Yes – EPA damage case
Kammer Moundsville Ohio Power Co 1 0 Unknown – no data
Kanawha River Glasgow Appalachian Power Co 4 0 Unknown -- no data
Mount Storm Mount Storm Dominion 0 2 Yes —Industry data
Phillip Sporn Graham Station Appalachian Power Co 3 1 Unknown – no data

Albright Plant's evidence of site contamination: Historical industry monitoring data are the basis of the finding of contamination. See Ashtracker.

Fort Martin's and Mount Storm's evidence of site contamination: 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.

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.