Southeast River Runs Part 1: Coal ash on the rivers we love

Guest Blog | June 19, 2013 | Coal, Energy Policy

This is the first blog in a series featuring rivers of the Southeast endangered by toxic coal ash pollution. The rest of the series can be found here.

Summer is a great time of year to get outside and play on rivers across the Southeast. Whether its paddling on the French Broad River outside of Asheville, NC or fishing the Black Warrior River in Alabama, rivers are great place to recreate and reconnect with nature, often in our own back yards!

On the French Broad River near Asheville North Carolina. Source: Jeff Rich and Paul Taggart

Rivers are more than just fun places to visit, they are vitally important to our communities and economy. In the U.S., fishing and water sports comprise a $121 billion dollar a year industry and 65% of our drinking water comes from rivers and streams. Considering how much we humans depend on rivers (not to mention the plants and critters that live in, on and near them), you might think they would be  protected from hazardous waste streams like toxic coal ash. Unfortunately, you’d be wrong.

Point source or “end of pipe” pollution has been regulated by the federal Clean Water Act since 1972. But the waste remaining when coal is burned for electricity remains virtually unregulated even though it contains toxic heavy metals like mercury, arsenic, lead and others that are dangerous (some are carcinogens) to human health and wildlife.

Tennessee Riverkeeper David Whiteside inspects an illegal seep at Plant Colbert coal ash impoundment near Tuscumbia, Alabama. Source: Donna Lisenby

There are no federal regulations and little oversight by states for the toxic trash, and much of it ends up polluting rivers. In the Southeast there are at least 450 impoundments containing 118 billion gallons of coal ash—that’s enough to cover 275,000 football fields one foot deep! Many of these are are old, unlined and failing. Almost all coal ash dumps are located next to waterways. Dam failures can flood rivers and streams with millions of gallons of toxic waste, as happened with TVA’s facility in Kingston TN in 2008. But big spills are not the only times coal ash pollutes our waterways. Unlined impoundments seep heavy metals on a regular basis into ground and surface waters and have triggered lawsuits in several states to stop ongoing pollution from coal fired power plants.

Although the Kingston disaster brought critical public attention to the need for coal ash regulation, little has changed. The Environmental Protection Agency has dragged its feet on regulating coal ash disposal, while congress attempts to block EPA’s ability to regulate the waste with proposed legislation deemed inadequate to protect human health and the environment by two Congressional Research Service reports. Fortunately, the EPA is currently updating power plant water pollution standards (which will have some impact on coal ash pollution, but is not comprehensive) for the first time in 30 years, and is taking public comments until August 6, 2013.

Three Southeastern Rivers were recently named on American Rivers’ annual list of the 10 most endangered U.S. rivers because of coal ash pollution and poor water management. This series will feature these and other rivers in the Southeast threatened by toxic coal ash pollution, giving a glimpse of what’s at stake if we don’t act fast to comprehensively regulate coal ash and keep it out of our waterways. So, please stay tuned as we roll these blogs out over the summer!

Want to learn more? Visit to find out if coal ash threatens where you live work and play, and send a message to EPA and Congress to appropriately regulate toxic coal ash.

Guest Blog
My Profile