STORY 2: Coal Ash Ponds
(Potomac & Susquahanna Rivers)

Why is coal ash bad?

Coal ash causes problems in communities and waterways across the country. Burning coal creates several ash by-products which have been poorly managed in unlined pits or landfills, often along riverbanks, that seep into groundwater or directly pollute rivers and streams through drains or overflows during heavy rain events. At this time, 735 active coal ash surface impoundments throughout the country are leaching hazardous chemicals into rivers, lakes, streams, and groundwater. Hundreds of coal power plants have been shutting down or converting to other power sources since the EPA began regulating the safe disposal of coal ash in 2015. Closures have also sped up as states switch to cleaner sources of energy to meet climate change goals.

Exposure to the numerous toxic contaminants found in coal ash such as arsenic, cadmium, selenium, lead, mercury, chromium, boron, sulfates, and lithium can cause serious illnesses and cancer. EPA’s findings on arsenic in the coal ash disposed in waste ponds demonstrated an extremely elevated cancer risk. 

Who and what uses of the water is it harming? 

This legacy of harmful chemicals pose a great public health concern to communities near these unlined ash ponds and landfills. Contaminants from the ash disposal sites have shown up in drinking water wells and in nearby and downstream waterbodies .

If your community is near coal ash disposal facilities and you are concerned about your family’s health, you are not alone and you can find assistance to address these problems. 

Possum Point Coal Ash Ponds

Are you living near or downstream 
of a coal-fired power plant or coal ash landfill? 

Here’s what to look for…

  • Visible changes to the water, especially in heavy rains because there may be heavy metals leaking into neighboring water bodies. 
  • Drinking water contamination – ask your local health department about testing drinking water wells and other drinking water sources.
  • Symptoms associated with exposure to chemicals found in coal ash include nausea, vomiting, and damage to the nervous system or other organs, especially in children.

Ask questions of your local city or county environmental agency about plans for safely closing power plants and about the quality of the water near or downstream from the power plant. Find out whether the local or state government is regularly monitoring the water downstream from the plant. It is important to review or compile data that tell the story. 

Community monitoring can be an incredibly helpful tool. For toxic metal pollutants, it can be expensive and you need to be properly trained. For the local or state government, or a court of law, to take the results seriously, it is important to have a reputable lab analyze the samples. 

Coal Ash Stories on the Potomac & Susquehanna Rivers

In the Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia, there are 21 active coal-fired plants, and 16 closed plants each plus numerous coal ash disposal facilities nearby threatening or polluting communities and waterways.

Potomac River

The story from Possum Point is just one example of how identification of problems and involvement of the community can result in action. In this case, the drinking water contamination prompted community organizing and activism which led to successful legislation in Virginia. Dominion Power, the owners of the plant, were required to close and excavate the ash disposal sites related to this plant. However, legislation is not an easy solution, nor is it the only one. As mentioned in the video, the Potomac Riverkeeper initially assumed they would need to file a lawsuit against Dominion Power to force action.  

Middle Susquehanna River

In the Middle Susquehanna River, between the West and North Branches, sits the Montour Steam Station in Washingtonville, an hour north of Harrisburg. Ashtracker measured pollutants above safe levels at the site including antimony, barium, beryllium, cadmium, cobalt, lithium, radium, and sulfate. 

At the 49-year-old Montour coal-fired power plant, a 155-acre unlined pit (Ash Basin 1) designed to store the residual ash from the operations of the plant, sits in groundwater. Elevated levels of cobalt, lithium and sulfates from the ash have been found in groundwater samples and reported to the EPA. Increases in boron, chloride, calcium, and arsenic have also been reported. 

With the legal representation from the Environmental Integrity Project, the Middle Susquehanna Riverkeeper entered into an agreement with the owner of the power plant, Talen Energy, that requires coal burning and use of the ash disposal basin to cease by December 31, 2025, and closure, draining, and capping of the pit by no later than October 17, 2028. This agreement also requires sampling of groundwater for at least 30 years to ensure that heavy metals and other contaminants do not leak into nearby streams, groundwater and drinking water. Surface water sampling is also required and the Riverkeeper will be funded to take over after the first year. Other parts to the agreement include management of impounded water and $1 million for the benefit of the Montour Preserve

Lower Susquehanna River

On the banks of the Lower Susquehanna River in York County, the Brunner Island Power Plant, also owned by Talen Energy, has been dumping coal ash waste into seven unlined ash ponds for several years. The Lower Susquehanna Riverkeeper found high levels of toxic pollutants such as arsenic in neighboring Black Gut Creek. Ashtracker has also identified arsenic, cadmium, cobalt, lithium, molybdenum, and sulfate above safe levels in groundwater monitoring wells at the site.

The Lower Susquehanna Riverkeeper also worked with the Environmental Integrity Project to issue a Notice of Intent to Sue Talen Energy in August of 2018. Settlement negotiations with the company and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection resulted in an agreement to close and excavate the remaining ash pond by June 2019 and December 2013, respectively, monitor and address leakage of pollutants from the other closed and one remaining active waste sites, pay a one million dollar fine and $100,000 for supplemental water quality projects in the county on multiple tributaries. The work at the ash disposal areas includes addressing all seeps, evaluating local water quality, and ensuring that if there is any discharge, it is permitted and complies with the CWA. Talen Energy is also required to submit a plan to the state agency that ensures the landfills, liners, and leachate systems are working and properly treated. 

Sierra Club separately reached a settlement agreement with Talen Energy to phase out coal combustion by 2028, and not to burn during peak smog season May-September, starting in 2023. The company is adding natural gas-firing capability to all three of its units.