Coal Ash

What is Coal Ash?

Coal ash is an abundant and dangerous by-product of burning coal for energy. Despite its hazardous characteristics, coal ash and other coal combustion wastes are not subject to federal regulation, and state laws governing coal combustion waste disposal are usually weak or non-existent.

What’s wrong with Coal Ash?

Coal ash contains numerous hazardous chemicals, including arsenic, selenium, lead, mercury, cadmium, chromium, boron, thallium, and aluminum.FN1 When coal ash comes into contact with water, these hazardous materials leach out of the waste and contaminate groundwater and surface water.FN2 These substances are poisonous and can cause cancer and damage the nervous system or other organs, especially in children. EPA has identified over 600 coal ash sites and documented at least 67 proven or potential cases of surface water or groundwater contamination from coal ash in at least 23 states.FN3

Coal-fired power plants produce approximately 131 million tons of waste per year, making coal combustion waste the second largest industrial waste stream in the U.S. Across the country, millions of tons of coal ash are being stored in precarious surface waste ponds, impoundments and abandoned mines. These put human health at risk from potential large scale disasters and from gradual yet equally dangerous contamination as coal ash toxins seep into drinking water sources. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has long recognized the danger of coal ash and needs to act quickly to fulfill its duty to protect public health and the environment through strong federal regulations on coal ash.

More Dangerous Than Smoking a Pack of Cigarettes a Day

In August 2007, EPA published a draft risk assessment that found extremely high risks to human health and the environment from the disposal of coal ash in waste ponds and landfills.FN4  The chart below compares EPA’s findings on the cancer risk from arsenic in coal ash disposed in waste ponds to several other cancer risks, along with the highest level of cancer risk that EPA finds acceptable under current regulatory goals.FN5 While the risk estimates shown below are extremely high, EPA officials admitted that they underestimated risk by at least 50% in some cases.FN6

Years of Delay

In 1980, Congress ordered EPA to study coal combustion waste and to make a regulatory determination by no later than 1983.FN7 On April 24, 2000, EPA finally completed that regulatory determination and found that coal combustion wastes could pose risks to human health and the environment if not properly managed and national regulations under subtitle D of RCRA are warranted for coal combustion wastes when they are disposed in landfills or surface impoundments.FN8 Despite that finding and subsequent studies revealing high levels of toxins and carcinogens in coal ash, EPA has failed to enact any rules.

The Road to Federal Regulation of Coal Ash

EPA has the authority to phase out these surface impoundment wet dumps the most dangerous ash disposal method and put in place common-sense regulations that protect human health and the environment by governing the disposal and recycling of dry coal ash.

In 2010 EPA proposed to regulate for the first time coal ash to address the risks from the disposal of the wastes generated by electric utilities and independent power producers. EPA is considering two possible options for the management of coal ash for public comment. Both options fall under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). You can take a look at the proposed rule by clicking here.


FN1: US EPA, Human and Ecological Risk Assessment of Coal Combustion Wastes, August 6 2007 (draft).

FN2: Id.

FN3: US EPA, Coal Combustion Waste Damage Case Assessments, July 9, 2007.

FN4: Id.

FN5: Human and Ecological Risk Assessment of Coal Combustion Wastes, August 6. 2007 (draft). Date for cigarettes comes from Center for Disease Control, Cigarette Smoking-Attributable Morbidity-U.S. 2000, MMWR Weekly, September 5, 2003 / 52(35);842-844

FN6: EPA Acknowledges Underestimates of Coal Ash Waste Disposal Risks, Inside EPA, Dec. 7, 2007, Vol. 28, No. 49.

FN7: Solid Waste Disposal Act, Section 8002(n), 42 U.S.C. 6982.

FN8: US EPA, Reg. Determination on Wastes from the Combustion of Fossil Fuels, Final Rule 65 Fed. Reg. 32214, May 22, 2000.

Coal Ash in Pennsylvania

Coming Soon…

For more information check out an excellent report documenting coal ash impacts on water quality in Pennsylvania from the Clean Air Task Force.