New Report Documents Unseen Threat From Toxic Coal Ash

Unregulated waste dumping in coal mines poisons water, slow-motion version of TVA disaster


Ben Dunham/Kathleen Sutcliffe, Earthjustice, (202) 667-4500
Lisa Evans, Earthjustice, (781) 631-4119

A new report, released today in the wake of the recent coal ash disasters at two Tennessee Valley Authority power plants, documents the unseen threat posed by toxic coal ash dumped in active and abandoned coal mines.


The report, "Waste Deep: Filling Mines with Coal Ash is Profit for Industry but Poison for People," casts a spotlight on minefilling, the practice of dumping coal ash into active and abandoned coal mines. This unregulated disposal method has poisoned streams and drinking water supplies across the country with arsenic, lead, chromium, selenium, and other toxins.

The report was commissioned by the nonprofit environmental law firm Earthjustice, a leader in the fight for federal coal ash disposal regulations. Earthjustice attorney Lisa Evans has tracked the issue of coal ash for nearly a decade and co-authored today’s report.

"Minefilling coal ash is a slow-motion and invisible counterpart to the TVA catastrophe," Evans said. "There, the destruction was unleashed in a matter of minutes. For communities with water poisoned by the country’s hundreds of coal ash mine dumps, the damage has been gradual and largely unseen, but it also presents a grave threat."

Among the report’s key findings:

  • Coal ash is becoming increasingly toxic. Pollution controls designed to keep toxins out of the air means more of these toxins are captured in the ash.
  • Minefilling coal ash fast-tracks pollutants to groundwater. The unique geology of abandoned mines means the toxins in coal ash can seep directly into the water table, easily migrating to drinking water supplies.
  • Coal ash is severely under-regulated. Most coal ash minefills are subjected to none of the safeguards required of even municipal waste landfills.

"EPA’s own scientists admit that exposure to coal combustion waste presents a cancer risk nine times greater than smoking a pack of cigarettes a day," said Ben Dunham, Earthjustice environmental health policy analyst. "This is hazardous waste. The federal government needs to start treating it as such."

In the wake of the Tennessee and Alabama coal ash spills, national attention has seized on problems posed by the poisonous waste of coal-fired power plants. The 129 million tons of coal ash generated each year constitutes the nation’s second largest industrial waste stream.

Federal regulators have puzzled over how to handle this ever-increasing waste product, and for years have opted to take the easy way out: declaring it non-hazardous and allowing utility companies to concoct dubious disposal methods like minefilling.

Each year, an estimated 25 million tons of toxic coal ash are dumped in mines. And in the absence of federal regulations, states have taken a misguided approach to regulating coal ash disposal — encouraging minefilling by deeming it a so-called ‘beneficial use.’

States across the nation have looked to Pennsylvania, home of the eastern United States’ largest coal ash minefilling operations, as a model. But the report shows the unintended consequences of this practice include water contaminated with pollutants, including lead and arsenic, many times higher than safe drinking water standards.

"From New Mexico to Pennsylvania we’re seeing communities threatened by the poisons seeping from these coal mine dumps into water supplies," said Jeff Stant, Director of the Coal Combustion Waste Initiative, Environmental Integrity Project. "And, if trends continue, the practice of minefilling is destined to grow. We need common sense safeguards in federal regulations and we need them now."

The report presents the following recommendations for national regulations to govern minefilling, echoing those presented in 2006 by the National Academies of Science:

  • Generators should pursue safe reuse of coal combustion waste ash before minefilling;
  • Coal combustion waste must be fully tested to determine its hazardous characteristics and its potential to leach toxic chemicals;
  • Disposal sites must be investigated to determine the quality and location of groundwater, groundwater flow paths, the potential for coal ash to react with minerals or groundwater, etc.;
  • Coal ash must be kept out of groundwater;
  • Site-specific management plans must be implemented at all disposal sites;
  • Monitoring must be designed to detect movement of coal combustion waste contaminants;
  • Site-specific performance and cleanup standards must be established;
  • Deeds must record and fully disclose that coal combustion waste was disposed at the mine site;
  • Bonds must be adequate to clean up any groundwater damaged by coal combustion waste disposal; and
  • Public input must be solicited in the development of national regulations and permits issued pursuant to those regulations.

Read the report (PDF) 

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