Report: Cleaning Up Toxic Coal Ash Creates Local Jobs, Protects Public Health, and Restores the Environment

Analysis by economists and environmental engineers demonstrates removing ash is better than the cap-in-place method


Valerie Holford, (202) 365-5336

A new report released by Earthjustice provides new evidence demonstrating the importance and benefit to local communities of thorough cleanup of coal ash rather than leaving it in place where it’s currently dumped. Economists, environmental engineers, and hydrogeologists studied three coal plants and found “clean closure” of existing coal ash dump sites, in which ash is removed, would result in 2 to 7 times greater positive economic impacts for each community over a leave-in-place alternative. Coal ash is the toxic waste generated by the combustion of coal, making it one of the largest industrial waste streams in the United States. 

This report provides a more complete understanding of the potential job creation and overall economic benefits of coal ash pond closure projects for local communities. It makes recommendations about what regulators can do to ensure the safe and proper pond closure of every coal ash site in the country. This message is particularly urgent as hundreds of leaking coal ash ponds are currently undergoing closure throughout the nation. 

This analysis was conducted by economists from the Applied Economics Clinic, as well as by hydrogeologists and environmental engineers with KirK Engineering & Natural Resources. They found robust positive economic and environmental impacts of coal ash impoundment closure at three coal ash plants: the Grainger Generating Station in South Carolina, the Michigan City Generating Station in Indiana, and the Colstrip Steam Electric Station in Montana. All three of the sites examined in this report are located near populations that have a disproportionate percentage of low-income residents and/or people of color. The social, economic, and health burden of coal ash pollution, nationwide, is carried disproportionately by communities of color and low-income communities.

At each site, the team compared the outcomes for a cap-in-place (leave-in-place) and a clean closure alternative (entirely removing the ash from the impoundment to a lined landfill or for beneficial reuse). In each case, the job creation, economic activity, and positive environmental impacts were far greater for clean closure than for cap-in-place.


“Coal ash causes serious harm to human health, drinking water, and aquatic life. This research shows that when utilities perform inadequate and illegal closure of coal ash dumps, the resulting pollution can devastate the social fabric and economic well-being of a community,” said Lisa Evans, Earthjustice attorney. “We are giving frontline residents and policymakers the tools they need to protect their communities and gain positive economic benefits like local employment opportunities, increased property values, functional freshwater ecosystems, and redevelopment opportunities.”

“One of the examples in this report is the coal ash at Michigan City, but the findings in the report apply to all the coal ash sites in Indiana. I hope all of our utilities that are proposing cap-in-place for their coal ash will look closely at it,” said Indra Frank, Environmental Health & Water Policy Director at Hoosier Environmental Council.

“It’s no longer up for debate that the coal industry is in permanent decline. Responsible clean-up is the single most shovel-ready solution to provide jobs and tax revenue to help coal-dependent communities transition into the future,” said Jeanie Alderson, the board chair of Northern Plains Resource Council, who ranches in the same county as the Colstrip Generating Station. “Folks working in coal have labored long and hard to help power our nation, and our country owes it to them to ensure their communities have a chance to thrive in the future. That opportunity starts with cleaning up land and water. If you don’t have good water, you don’t have much.”

“The proper closure of the Grainger Generating Station’s coal ash plants has helped to ensure clean water in the Waccamaw River watershed. For years, the communities near Grainger feared that flood waters would breach the coal ash ponds and dump ash into our river. Since the ponds have been cleaned and all the ash has been removed, we have one less worry during hurricane season,” said Cara Schildtknecht, Waccamaw Riverkeeper with Winyah Rivers Alliance.

The cases analyzed in this report represent a range of geographic locations, site conditions, and community characteristics. This report demonstrates how clean closure is a more thorough process that employs more people, and therefore leads to more wages and spending in the community. Clean closure also takes the ash out of contact with groundwater and away from water bodies, which is a permanent solution to contamination, protects waterways from spills caused by flooding and severe storms, and allows restoration of wetlands, rivers, streams, and lakes.

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