Coal Ash Pollution in Virginia

Acres of coal ash with a plant in the background

Coal ash is the waste byproduct from coal-fired power plants. Coal ash includes fly ash – the fine, powdery particles that float up the smoke stack and are capture by pollution control devices – and bottom ash – the coarse, heavier materials that fall to the bottom of the furnace.

Coal ash contains a variety of concentrated heavy metals, including many known carcinogenic and neurotoxic chemicals. While the characteristics of coal ash vary depending on where the coal is mined, it typically contains arsenic, cadmium, hexavalent chromium, lead, mercury and selenium.

There are twelve active coal ash ponds and eight active coal ash landfills in Virginia. Eight additional large coal ash ponds in Virginia are no longer being used for ash disposal but sit idle, full of toxic sludge, on Virginia’s waterways. These active and idle sites pose a significant hazard to health and the environment. Because of a lack of safeguards, storage ponds are nothing more than unlined earthen pits situated along major waterways such as the Potomac and James River.

Coal ash pollution has major impacts on Virginia’s treasured natural resources. Two disposal sites are on the federal Superfund list, including one on the Superfund National Priority List. At six other sites, coal ash severely contaminated ground water and air or damaged ecosystems, and the sites include the second largest coal ash spill in U.S. history.

Despite the abundant evidence of groundwater contamination by coal ash in Virginia and the long history of spills and mismanagement of dams, state regulations have serious gaps that heighten the risk of future harm from coal ash.