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Coal Combustion Waste - What Is It, and Why Care?

Coal combustion waste, or coal ash, is the waste that's left over when coal is burned in a power plant to generate electricity.  It can include fly ash, bottom ash, and boiler slag, and flue-gas desulfurization (FGD) or scrubber sludge from air emissions controls. Coal ash can be hazardous because of its concentrated levels of toxic metals that can leach into water at unsafe levels.  It can cause cancer and is harmful to humans and wildlife.

Although the U.S. EPA adopted federal rules in October of 2015, these rules do not classify coal ash as a hazardous waste and are self-implementing. The Illinois EPA has drafted state rules, but they are yet to be adopted and favor a "cap and leave in place" solution.  

Illinois has the most coal ash disposal sites of any state in the country, and ranks second in the nation with respect to the number of contaminated sites.  Join EJC and its partner organizations as we work together to ensure that Illinois adopts the strongest rules possible.  They should include meaningful evaluation of alternatives for closure or cleanup; a public involvement process to allow input on alternatives; and financial guarantees that ensures the corporations - not the taxpayers - will  be responsible for cleanup. 

Above photo shows aftermath of 2008 Coal ash spill in Kingston, Tenn. Photo credit: Tennessee Valley Authority


Officials sampling river and banks after 2014 Dan River coal ash spill. Photo courtesy of Steve Alexander, USFWS

What Is Coal Ash?

Coal ash contains high levels of harmful heavy metals such as arsenic, lead and selenium. As technology has allowed power plants to capture more hazardous pollutants that would have gone into our air, these toxins have become part of the solid waste mixture that is coal ash. We have traded one form of toxic pollution for another.



Unauthorized disposal of coal ash on wetlands polluted fishing lake in Crystal City,Missouri. Photo courtesy of Working Films.

Clean Up Your Coal Ash Mess

The State of Illinois is responsible for protecting the health, safety, and welfare of its residents. This means that the Illinois EPA and Illinois Pollution Control Board must adopt strong rules that force corporations to pay for the cleanup of their waste. Otherwise, Illinois taxpayers will bear the cost when coal ash pits fail.