New Legislation to Ensure Safe Disposal of Toxic Coal Ash Introduced in Congress

Coal ash is linked to serious health problems and threatens drinking water supplies


Val Holford, (202) 365-5336

Representative Steve Cohen introduced the Ensuring Safe Disposal of Coal Ash Act, building upon Energy and Commerce leaders’ CLEAN Future Act coal ash language to tackle the second largest source of industrial waste in the United States and its disproportionate impact on underserved communities. 

The bill, which would amend the Solid Waste Disposal Act, would direct the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to strengthen requirements necessary to protect human health and the environment from this toxic ash. It reverses the rollbacks made to coal ash protections by the Trump EPA in several ways, such as requiring power plants to ensure they can foot the bill for cleanup costs in the event of disasters or hazardous spills, prohibiting the continued operation of unlined impoundments, and requiring full regulatory oversight of any EPA-approved state coal ash programs. 

Congressman Steve Cohen (TN-09) said, “I have been acutely aware of the dangers of coal ash contamination because of the disastrous 2008 coal ash spill in Kingston, Tennessee, and the unacceptably slow clean up of the contaminated groundwater beneath coal ash pits at TVA’s Allen Fossil Plant in my own district. This plant is now identified as one of the most contaminated sites in the country. The measure I am introducing strengthens protections outlined in the 2015 Coal Ash Rule and protects communities by mandating safer and faster disposal of this dangerous waste product of electricity production.”

The bill would deny permits for closure that allow storage of coal ash in contact with groundwater. Critically, it adds provisions to ensure meaningful public participation, addresses legacy coal ash dumps, prohibits dangerous use of unencapsulated coal ash and requires protection of low-income communities, communities of color, and other disproportionately impacted populations. For the first time, power plants would be prohibited from allowing dangerous levels of boron, hexavalent chromium, manganese, and sulfate from leaching from coal ash into groundwater. 

Christine Santillana, Legislative Counsel at Earthjustice, said, “This legislation aims to correct decades of coal ash mismanagement that has left communities around the country exposed to the toxic chemicals in our waterways. This is an exciting opportunity and we applaud Congressman Cohen for working to ensure the already-passed law is serving our communities, not the coal industry.”

Across the nation, hundreds of leaking, unlined, toxic coal ash ponds are polluting drinking water sources, as well as bays, lakes, rivers, and streams — releasing their own poisons and radioactive substances into the water. Coal ash is the toxic waste generated by burning coal to produce electricity, and it contains deadly substances, including carcinogens like arsenic, cadmium, and chromium, and neurotoxins such as lead, mercury and lithium.

For a century, utilities have used the cheapest, easiest — and most dangerous — method of disposal for their toxic waste: dumping it into unlined basins (euphemistically called “ponds”) next to the power plants. Over decades, hundreds of unlined coal ash ponds have grown to span scores of acres, containing millions of tons of liquid toxic waste impounded behind ash or soil walls of aging coal ash dams. Many sit close to communities and water bodies, and all of them are leaking. 

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