Southeast Summer Coal Ash Roundup

Would you let your kids play here? At a glance, there's no way to know of the massive, unlined coal ash pits lurking near a soccer field and polluting a popular fishing lake at the Sutton Power Station near Wilmington, NC.

Since the Dan River disaster hit almost 6 months ago, North Carolina has been front and center in coal ash news. So much so that it might seem that NC is the only Southeastern state with coal ash troubles. Unfortunately, North Carolina’s dangerous coal ash sites are not unique in the region, which is home to at least 450 ash dumps. The sad fact is that most major rivers in the Southeast have coal ash along their banks, and states are failing to protect public health, the environment and our drinking water supplies from this toxic threat. Even when coal ash impoundments don’t fail and cause a massive spill, they can silently seep toxics into groundwater, rivers, lakes and streams.

Here’s our roundup of current coal ash threats throughout the region. Read on to find out if there’s a coal ash site threatening your back yard or your favorite summer getaway, and if there is, make sure to speak out before the next coal ash spill happens in your community or watershed. You can also check out our state pages on www.SoutheastCoalAsh.org to learn more. 

Johnsonville Power Station's "ash island" in the Tennessee River is an extreme example of coal ash disposal in the Southeast. Many impoundments started out as ash being dumped directly into wetlands, streams, and rivers, with earthen berms added later. There's little doubt that these are leaking toxics to surrounding waterways.

Tennessee is home to the infamous 2008 Kingston disaster that poisoned two rivers and decimated 300 acres of private property and aquatic habitat. The Kingston Fossil Plant is still in operation, along with seven other coal fired power plants in the state, each of which is currently contaminating nearby groundwater. All together they house 44 coal ash impoundments that can hold 16.8 billion gallons of coal ash (that’s over 16 times the amount spilled at Kingston). Despite having experienced one of the worst environmental disasters in US history, the state of Tennessee has failed to bolster its weak regulations. Like most Southeastern states, Tennessee lacks many basic safeguards to protect human health and the environment, and even exempts coal ash impoundments from dam safety laws. TVA’s coal ash is located on the banks of several rivers, including the Tennessee–a vital drinking water source and popular summer recreation destination.

Georgia‘s 11 coal fired power plants house a total of 41 coal ash impoundments, almost all of which are over 30 years old, meaning they lack modern pollution control liners and leachate collection systems. Combined, these impoundments hold enough coal ash to cover 33,883 football fields one foot deep. Even though it ranks 8th in the nation for coal ash generation and 10 of its coal ash sites pose significant threats to nearby communities and infrastructure, Georgia has some of the weakest disposal regulations in the nation. The state also fails to properly monitor coal ash, meaning that there are likely many more polluting sites than the two EPA has found: Plants Yates, Bowen that have contaminated nearby waterways with arsenic, chromium, selenium mercury and other toxics. Ash dumpsites threatens some of Georgia’s most valued waterways and wild lands, like the Chattahoochee and Savannah Rivers, Lake Sinclair and the Piedmont National Wildlife Refuge.

Alabama is home to the nation’s most toxic coal ash waste in the country, with an estimated 15 million pounds of toxic heavy metals stored in 44 impoundments across the state. According to EPA, all of Alabama’s coal ash sites post a significant threat to nearby communities and infrastructure and illegal pollution has been found at the Widows Creek and Colbert plants, which is presumably ongoing. With more miles of navigable rivers than any other state, it’s no wonder Alabama is called “the River State”. Alabama’s Black Warrior River, renowned for it’s scenic beauty and astounding biodiversity, is also home to two coal ash dumpsites (both in Birmingham’s back yard) and dumpsites at the Gadsden Power Station are less than a mile upstream of drinking water intakes for the City of Gadsden.

The Apalachicola Bay supports a multi-billion dollar a year fishery and supplies 12% of the US oyster harvest.

Florida ranks 7th in the nation for coal ash generation has more coal ash impoundments than any other state in the Southeast, 78, though we know the least about these dumpsites thanks to consistent underreporting from utilities. The state’s water resources are especially vulnerable to coal ash pollution due to a high water table and porous geology. Florida law has long-prohibited any hazardous waste landfills in the state, though unfortunately coal ash impoundments are exempt. Lax regulations and oversight results in 37% of reported impoundments are unlined and 80% lack leachate collection systems, and even more are unmonitored and uncovered. Recently, water testing showed alarming amounts of toxic waste flowing into the Apalachicola River from Gulf Power’s Scholz Electric Generating Plant, prompting SACE and other groups to sue to protect this ecologically diverse and economically valuable waterway.

South Carolina is home to 50 coal ash impoundment at 12 power plants, though underreporting from utilities means the public has no way to know the total amount of ash stored across the state, or how hazardous they are to nearby communities. We do know that several SC waterways have already been contaminated by coal ash, causing at least $17 million worth of damage to wildlife and recreational areas. Unlike in NC, where environmental groups’ lawsuits have been encumbered by the state, in SC suits succeeded in getting two South Carolina utilities to agree to move coal ash away from waterways including near the Congaree National Park and the Waccamaw River, both unique ecological treasures.

North Carolina is home to 14 coal-fired power plants and a total of 50 coal ash impoundments, which can hold enough coal ash to cover 38,662 football fields one foot deep. All but one of these sites pose significant threats to nearby communities, waterways and infrastructure, according to EPA. Years of utility self-reported data show that coal ash is contaminating groundwater at all of NC’s 14 coal ash dumpsites. Despite this, state officials have historically turned a blind eye and fail to strengthen coal ash protections. Following the Dan River spill this February, lawmakers are working on regulations, however these could actually weaken protections under current laws! Some of the state’s most important waterways are threatened by coal ash, including the Catawba River (home to the U.S. National Whitewater Center and drinking water source for 1.7 million North Carolinians), the French Broad and Cape Fear Rivers. Environmental groups are suing to stop pollution to these and other waterways across the state.

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