Coal Ash Facts

St. Johns RIVERKEEPER has gathered the following facts about coal ash from sources including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, and Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

Coal ash, also referred to as coal combustion residuals (CCRs), is a waste byproduct produced from the burning of coal in coal-fired power plants.

  • Coal ash is a dangerous waste product, containing toxic contaminants like mercury, cadmium, lead, selenium and arsenic.  According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), “these contaminants can pollute waterways, ground water, drinking water, and the air,” endangering wildlife and human health.
  • Coal ash is the second largest source of industrial waste in the country, after mining. Power plants collectively produce 140 million tons of toxic coal ash waste every year. (Earthjustice)
  • Short-term exposure to coal ash can cause irritation of the nose and throat, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, and shortness of breath. Long-term exposure can lead to liver damage, kidney damage, cardiac arrhythmia, and a variety of cancers. (NRDC)
  • An EPA study cautioned that people living within one mile of an unlined coal ash pond have a 1 in 50 chance of developing some form of cancer. (Sierra Club)
  • Coal ash is also a danger to wildlife and the environment. According to Earthjustice, the release of toxins from coal ash “has caused fish kills, deformities in fish and amphibians, and health hazards to people consuming contaminated fish.”
  • Studies have documented high levels of chemicals, such as selenium, in the tissues of fish where coal ash was discharged into waterways. Selenium is toxic to aquatic life at very low levels and bioaccumulates in food chains, passing from parents to offspring in eggs. In addition, as the ash sinks to the bottom, it smothers aquatic organisms and plants essential to the health of the ecosystem. (Earthjustice) (Duke University)
  • Despite the dangers presented by coal ash, the EPA categorizes it as “non-hazardous” solid waste, the same designation as household garbage. As a result, coal ash regulations are much less restrictive than those for hazardous materials, providing less protections for public health and the environment and fewer opportunities to hold parties responsible for coal ash spills accountable.
  • Locally, JEA and Seminole Electric in Putnam County produce and store coal ash on site. A 2019 report by Earthjustice and the Environmental Integrity Project found that 91% of the nation’s coal-fired power plants reported elevated levels of contaminants such as arsenic, lithium, chromium and other pollutants in nearby groundwater. (Washington Post)
  • Coal ash landfills and storage impoundments or ponds pose disproportionate threats to low income communities and communities of color. (U.S. Commission on Civil Rights) (Scientific American)

The March 2021 coal ash spill in the Atlantic Ocean highlights a much bigger problem associated with coal ash and toxic waste. When the citizens of Puerto Rico decided they did not want to be exposed to coal ash, the utility decided to simply export its waste to other communities, instead of seeking more sustainable renewable sources of energy production and waste management.

“Utilities must be required to take responsibility for their own waste and should not be allowed to put other communities at risk with their pollution, especially those who had nothing to do with producing it.” – Lisa Rinaman, St. Johns Riverkeeper