Biden Administration Announces Crackdown on Coal Power Plants’ Contamination of Water

This marks the first federal enforcement action against the coal industry’s illegal pollution of groundwater from coal ash.


Miranda Fox, Earthjustice, (415) 283-2324

Valerie Holford for Earthjustice

An announcement by the Biden administration today marks the first time there’s been federal enforcement against the coal power plant industry’s illegal pollution of groundwater and sources of drinking water from coal ash.

Lisa Evans, an attorney with Earthjustice, said, “We are grateful the Biden administration is stepping in to protect people from the coal industry’s toxic contamination of drinking water sources. If you’ve polluted the water, you need to clean it up. If you’ve dumped toxic ash into groundwater in a coal ash pond, you’ve got to remove it. It’s that simple. The Trump administration let nearly all coal plants violate federal rules on coal ash waste established near the end of the Obama administration.”

This announcement centers on decisions concerning nine power plants and compliance obligation letters addressing four additional plants, as well as a request for state regulators in Georgia to reevaluate recent state granted permits. The EPA includes in these decisions and letters several critical declarations that mark the first time the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is interpreting and enforcing the federal government’s rules on coal ash since those rules were passed in 2015. The EPA’s action will have wide application and set a precedent for more than 200 U.S. coal plants and the nearly 750 coal ash ponds and landfills they manage. The EPA issued a mix of final and draft decisions about the nine plants.

The agency’s actions establish that:

  1. Coal ash ponds can’t be closed with ash sitting IN groundwater. Across the nation, at least 150 ash ponds are within five feet of groundwater, with a lot of those sitting in direct contact with the water. Leaving ponds of toxic waste in contact with groundwater creates never-ending leaching of dangerous chemicals like arsenic, cobalt, cadmium, lead and radium, which can cause cancer and neurological harm.
  2. Coal plant operators must clean up groundwater contaminated by coal ash and cannot get away with “do-nothing” solutions that simply wait for the toxic metals to be diluted or flow into the nearest drinking water well or surface water.
  3. Coal plant operators must openly and honestly determine the extent of water contamination caused by coal ash at their plants and can no longer hide behind intentionally false sampling and analysis that conceals the true extent of the poisoned groundwater or blames an “alternate source” without a sound basis.

Coal ash is the leading source of water contamination in the country, and there are 738 regulated dump sites. There is enough toxic coal ash sitting in leaking U.S. ponds to fill train cars that circle the earth more than 5 times over. Coal plants are disproportionately located in environmental justice communities and where families suffer higher incidences of cancer, asthma and more. Nine of the 13 plants addressed in today’s announcement are in environmental justice communities. According to analysis of the industry’s own test results, 91% of coal plants severely polluted the underlying groundwater to levels that exceed federal safe standards for drinking water.

The EPA’s decisions were in response to applications from several power plants to delay closure of unlined toxic ash ponds pursuant to a Trump rollback to the Obama administration’s 2015 CCR Rule. The EPA did not grant any of the nine applications it responded to today. Instead, the agency’s decisions outright rejected three, found four incomplete and one ineligible, and indicated it would only conditionally approve one application after compliance violations were resolved. Plants rejected include the James Gavin Power Plant in OH, Clifty Creek Power Plant in IN, and Ottumwa Generating Station in IA. The conditional approval was given to the H.L. Spurlock Generating Station in KY. Plants that were rejected based on incomplete applications were Sioux and Meramec Generating Stations in MO, Erickson Generating Station in MI, and Dallman Power Station in IL. Lastly EPA found Greenidge Power Plant in NY ineligible because it no longer burns coal.

EPA compliance letters

In addition, the EPA sent four compliance obligation letters to utilities telling them that they are violating important provisions of the Coal Combustion Residuals (CCR) Rule. These include letters to:

  1. Applied Energy Services (AES-PR) for failing to implement a viable remedy that will clean up the groundwater contamination at their plant in Guayama, Puerto Rico;
  2. Duke Energy for failing to comply with any CCR Rule requirements at two massive coal ash ponds at their Gallagher Generating Station in IN and for planning to illegally close the ash ponds in 20 feet of water;
  3. Beckjord Power in OH for disposing of coal ash in retired ponds and then failing to comply with CCR Rule requirements at those ponds; and
  4. Tecumseh Generating Station in KS for a myriad of rule violations including failing to comply with monitoring requirements to properly determine the extent of coal ash contamination at the plant, thereby avoiding groundwater cleanup. Lastly, EPA sent a letter to the Georgia Environmental Protection Division requesting that state regulators review their pending and recently issued CCR permits to determine whether the permits are consistent with EPA’s prohibition on closure in groundwater and determine whether these permits need to be modified or reissued.

Lisa Evans of Earthjustice continued, “Most coal plants nationwide haven’t lifted a finger to clean up the toxic mess they’ve created. The polluters often try to con the government by covering up the contamination. It’s like the industry is massively cheating on their taxes and walking away scot-free because no one is reviewing their filings. The EPA and state regulatory agencies must immediately examine the compliance records of every coal plant to uncover the widespread illegal activity and reckless negligence occurring throughout the nation. Failure to do so will ensure that contaminated sites get worse. Without action, contaminated sites will continue to disproportionately impact communities whose populations are low-income or people of color.”

How the power plants deliberately hide water contamination

Utilities do this in several ways: (1) by claiming the culprit is other coal ash on their property that isn’t regulated due to a loophole; (2) by comparing water samples near the coal ash dump to a water sample in another dirty location on their property to show it’s not worse near the pond or landfill; and (3) by taking too few water samples in all the wrong places to purposely avoid finding contamination. Electric utilities do anything they can to twist the facts to try to squeeze through a loophole rather than admit they are breaking the law and putting people’s health at risk.

Road map for the future

Today the EPA has provided a road map for (1) how utilities must safely close toxic coal ash ponds (not IN our drinking water supplies); (2) how they must honestly test for water contamination; and (3) how they must actively restore the nation’s sources of drinking water.

Additional Resources

About Earthjustice

Earthjustice is the premier nonprofit environmental law organization. We wield the power of law and the strength of partnership to protect people's health, to preserve magnificent places and wildlife, to advance clean energy, and to combat climate change. We are here because the earth needs a good lawyer.