Coal Ash


Cleaning up coal ash will keep harmful pollution – like mercury and arsenic – out of the water we drink and the rivers in which we play.

Why should you care about coal ash?

If clean water is important to you and your family, you need to know about a silent danger to our waterways and public health.*

Coal ash, the waste left over after coal is burned to generate power, contains concentrated amounts of heavy metals such as lead, mercury, arsenic, chromium, and selenium, which are hazardous to human health, and to wildlife. Coal ash contains arsenic, lead, mercury, chromium, and a range of harmful heavy metals and toxic pollutants that poison the air and drinking water supplies of communities living near coal ash dumpsites. Coal ash threatens the respiratory, cardiovascular, and neurological systems of people living near more than 1400 dump sites across the nation.

coal-ash-bucket-croppedDespite this danger, coal ash is subject to less stringent rules than everyday household garbage! Coal ash, mixed with water to form a toxic slurry, is stored in huge impoundments, commonly called “coal ash ponds” or “lagoons”, which often have no liners to prevent heavy metals from getting into drinking water.*

Alabama has nine coal-fired power plants with at least 44 coal ash ponds resting on rivers and creeks throughout the state. These plants produce 3.2 million tons of coal ash every year, and because of the high quantity of toxic heavy metals, Alabama houses the most toxic coal ash of any other state in the US.


Alabama drinking water supplies downstream from coal ash impoundments. Click to see bigger.

Coal ash disasters have been plaguing communities living near poisonous and dangerous dump sites – from the 2008 disaster in Tennessee, when a billion gallons of toxic sludge poured onto farmland and into the Emory and Clinch rivers, to the recent failure along North Carolina’s Dan River, when a burst stormwater pipe underneath an unlined coal ash pit dumped 140,000 tons of coal ash and toxic wastewater into the river – the problem with coal ash pollution is getting worse and more dangerous every day.

Over 1.5 million children live near coal ash storage sites and 70 percent of all coal ash lagoons disproportionately impact low-income communities. When coal ash comes in contact with water, a toxic soup of hazardous pollutants can leach out of the waste and poison our water. The EPA has found some coal ash ponds pose a 1 in 50 risk of cancer to residents drinking arsenic-contaminated water – a risk 2000 times higher than EPA’s regulatory goal. The vast majority of states do not require adequate monitoring or liners to stop the release of toxic chemicals, nor do they ensure that massive earthen dams are maintained safely. States have routinely failed to protect their citizens from coal ash – as was evident in North Carolina’s recent handling of the Dan River coal ash spill.

What is the Alabama Rivers Alliance doing about coal ash?

The Alabama Rivers Alliance is working on the ground with partners who are fighting to protect their communities from toxic coal ash, such as the Southern Environmental Law Center, Black Warrior Riverkeeper, Coosa Riverkeeper, Mobile Baykeeper and Tennessee Riverkeeper. We also advocate sound regulations of coal ash that are protective of human and environmental health, and for Alabama’s implementation of the federal policies that do exist.

How can I learn more?

Watch this short film from Southern Exposure Film Fellowship program:

Coal Ash Brochure-CoverDownload our brochure addressing coal ash issues in Alabama created by the Alabama Rivers Alliance and partners.



“Alabama: A state’s role in coal ash regulation.” (2013). Southern Alliance for Clean Energy and partners. Retrieved from 

“What you need to know about coal ash.” (2014). Retrieved from 

Everyone has a role in continuing to improve regulation of coal ash to protect our air, land, and water, including:

Citizens – Citizens must remain engaged in the issue to advocate for better regulation at all levels of government and to ensure that industry is complying with existing laws.

Federal Government – The Environmental Protection Agency must improve existing and develop additional regulations to include the required cleanup of legacy sites and the end of wet coal ash disposal.

State Government – The Environmental Management Commission must ensure that state regulations for coal ash storage and coal ash discharge permits are protective of water quality and human health and that discharge permits are kept up to date to ensure ongoing protections.

Industry – The industries that generate coal ash, such as Alabama Power Company and the Tennessee Valley Authority, must comply with state and federal regulations.

Black Warrior Riverkeeper, Mobile Baykeeper, Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, Coosa Riverkeeper