The Impacts of Coal Ash Waste on Water

The Emory River, clogged with coal ash after the 2008 Kingston disaster

Water contamination from coal ash is a serious concern. Many of the pollutants found in the waters underneath or adjacent to unregulated coal ash waste sites are carcinogens, neurotoxins, or are deadly to fish and other aquatic life. In the Southeast alone there are already over 50 documented cases of water contamination from coal ash facilities.

Arsenic, a potent human carcinogen, has been found in contaminated sites at 145 times the federal drinking water standard. Arsenic causes multiple forms of cancer, including cancer of the liver, kidney, lung, bladder, and skin, and is one of the chemicals present in approximately half of the coal ash contamination sites in the Southeast.

A home ripped from its foundation by the 2008 Kingston Disaster

Liners at ash storage facilities can help to prevent leaking and leaching. The risk to water and health increases at facilities without liners and at facilities with inadequate/ruptured liners. Most of the documented contamination cases occur at unlined facilities.

While most contamination happens slowly and quietly, sometimes coal ash dams suddenly burst. In 2008, the world took notice of the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Kingston Fossil Plant in East Tennessee, when the plant’s coal ash dam suddenly failed, sending a billion-gallon surge of toxic coal ash slurry across the surrounding area and into the Emory River.

On April 19, 2013 The Environmental Protection Agency proposed new and updated Coal Water Pollution Standards, or Effluent Limitation Guidelines (ELGs), to protect public waters from coal ash seepage into waterways. Please visit our page on Coal Ash Rules and the EPA for more information.