Coal Ash Pollution Contaminates Groundwater, Increases Cancer Risks

Better safeguards needed at coal ash disposal sites


Lisa Evans, Earthjustice, (781) 631-4119
Jeff Stant, Clean Air Task Force, (317) 359-1306
Eric Schaeffer, Environmental Integrity Project, (202) 296-8800

A new EPA report measuring the health risks posed by disposal practices at coal ash dumps confirms what residents who live nearby know only too well – pollution from these sites significantly increases both cancer and noncancer health risks and degrades water quality in groundwater supplies.


By examining 181 "coal combustion waste," or coal ash disposal sites throughout the country, the report estimates risks to health and the environment from coal ash disposal. The report found that unlined coal ash waste ponds pose a cancer risk 900 times above what is defined as ‘acceptable.’ The report also finds that coal ash disposal sites release toxic chemicals and metals such as arsenic, lead, boron, selenium, cadmium, thallium, and other pollutants at levels that pose risks to human health and the environment.

Earthjustice, the Clean Air Task Force, Environmental Integrity Project and other national and local environmental and public health organizations have long called for regulations that protect against the toxic ash produced by coal-fired power plants. Instead, a common industry practice is to mix the pollutant-laden ash with water and dump the toxic brew into unlined or inadequately lined ponds, allowing pollutants to poison groundwater supplies.

"Strict standards regulating the disposal of coal ash are long overdue," said Earthjustice attorney Lisa Evans. "There is no excuse for further delay. The EPA has the data. They know how grave the health risk is and yet still millions of people remain exposed to this dangerous waste. Coal ash is our country’s second largest source of industrial waste, and it’s time the EPA made these polluters do their part to clean up."

The EPA report finds that coal ash dumped in unlined or clay-lined ponds and landfills pose the greatest risk. According to data collected in 1995, more than 60 percent of the country’s coal ash disposal units are unlined or clay-lined.

EPA also found that the use of a composite liner system significantly reduces the risk of exposure to cancer-causing and health-threatening pollution to within acceptable levels. But the federal government, and most states, do not require such protective measures.

"For decades, coal ash has been disposed in unlined landfills and waste ponds, contaminating the water throughout the U.S.," said Jeff Stant of Clean Air Task Force. "EPA promised in 2000 to require safeguards for coal ash disposal, yet this long-awaited action demonstrates that they are completely out of touch with what’s happening around these sites. Communities near coal plants deserve far better."

About 129 million tons of coal ash is generated in the U.S. each year, making it the nation’s second largest waste steam.  The toxic byproduct of coal combustion is disposed at approximately 600 coal ash landfills and industrial waste ponds nationwide. At least 23 states have poisoned surface or groundwater supplies from improper disposal of coal ash.

Read the complete EPA report here. (PDF)

Click here to see a table of total tons of coal ash generated in each state.  (PDF)

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