Coal Ash

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Almost 10% (4 out of 45) of coal ash impoundments designated by the EPA as "High Hazard" are located on the banks of the Catawba-Wateree River. All four of these high hazard ash ponds are located on reservoirs that are used as a source of drinking water. Two of the high hazard ash ponds are located on Mountain Island lake which supplies drinking water to approximately 860,000 people in Charlotte, Gastonia, Matthews, Mint Hill, Mt. Holly and Pineville. In addition, SCE&G has a coal ash pond on the Congaree River, which is just upstream from Congaree National Park.

The Catawba-Wateree River is a national poster child for the problems with unlined coal ash impoundments.  Unlined coal ash impoundments threaten the Catawba River through three primary routes of exposure:  1)  catastrophic release, such as the recent event in Riverbend Steam Station Ash PondTennessee described below, 2) daily untreated discharges from the coal ash ponds, and 3) seepage of contaminants from coal ash into the groundwater.  According to 2005 U.S. Dept. of Energy numbers, over 200,000 tons of Coal Ash Waste is stored adjoining the Catawba River in Gaston County and 33,500 tons of coal waste is stored adjoining the Catawba River in Catawba County.  Catawba Riverkeeper has been active in testing the discharges from the ash ponds, educating the public about the ash ponds, advocating for tighter standards, and in some cases filing lawsuits to compel the cleanup of ash ponds. 

In 2012, the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) filed a lawsuit on behalf of Catawba Riverkeeper to stop pollution of the Wateree River.  Catawba Riverkeeper settled a lawsuit against SCE&G after receiving a favorable ruling from the United States District Court in South Carolina.  The settlement is resulting in the cleanup of the coal ash ponds on the Wateree River, and that cleanup is currently ahead of schedule.

In 2013, SELC, on behalf of Catawba Riverkeeper, filed a notice of intent to sue Duke Energy regarding Duke's four leaking coal ash impoundments on the Catawba River. The State of North Carolina filed its own lawsuit and proposed sweetheart settlement to protect Duke Energy. Subsequently, the courts allowed Catawba Riverkeeper to intervene in the state action, proceed with a separate federal lawsuit and the State withdrew its proposed sweetheart settlement.  The litigation subsequently expanded to include additional sites and a related federal lawsuit.  The litigation regarding Duke's coal ash waste is pending.

The coal ash issue received increased attention after the February 2014 coal ash spill on the Dan River.  Duke Energy initially reported spilling up to 82,000 tons of coal ash.  Subsequently, Duke lowered its estimates to 39,000 tons of ash spilled and 24 million gallons of wastewater spilled.  In July 2014, Duke reported that it had removed approximately 3,000 tons of ash and polluted sediment from the Dan River.  Amazingly, the removal process was declared complete although only about 7.6% of the ash had been removed from the river.

The public outrage over the Dan River spill prompted the North Carolina General Assembly to develop legislation about the coal ash ponds.  Although all of the sites with coal ash ponds in North Carolina are known to be leaking and contaminating the groundwater, the legislation requires only that the coal ash at four out of 14 locations be removed and it created a Coal Ash Management Commission to conduct further studies about what needs to be done at the other locations.  You can listen to a discussion about the coal ash issues and the work of the Coal Ash Management Commission on the November 19 edition of "Charlotte Talks" at  The participants in the program included Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation Executive Director Rick Gaskins, as well as the Chair of the NC Coal Ash Management Commission and a Vice President of Duke Energy.




The problem of coal ash was featured in a report by the CBS news program "60 Minutes" and numerous other publications.   For a national map of coal ash sites, click here.   Recent studies indicate that contaminants from the coal ash ponds, are infiltrating the groundwater under the ash ponds in addition to being discharged directly into the reservoirs that are used as a source of drinking water along the Catawba River.  The Catawba Riverkeeper is urging local governments that rely on the Catawba River for water to develop contingency plans in the event of a catastrophic failure of any of the ash ponds, as happened in Tennessee in December 2008.  For more information about coal ash visit our Coal Ash Fact Sheet. For our press release click here.  For a video about coal ash click here. For information about possible recycling/reuse methods for Coal Ash click here.  

"60 Minutes" Report on the Coal Ash Problem


Environmental Contamination from Ash Ponds

The collapse of TVA’s coal ash basin in Kingston, TN on December 22, 2008, and the coal ash spill on the Dan River in 2013 are recent examples of the threat posed by ash ponds.  The Kingston spill released approximately 2.6 million cubic yards of toxic coal ash over 400 acres and blanketed miles of river habitat. Water quality samples taken five days after this spill showed arsenic levels 300 times the legal drinking water limit immediately at the site and 30 times that limit two miles downstream.

That’s not the end of the recent releases of slurries from coal-fired power plants into America’s waterways though. Just a few days later, on January 9, 2009 another TVA facility spilled 10,000 gallons of gypsum slurry into the Tennessee River in Stevenson, Alabama.

A more insidious risk is environmental contamination caused by toxins in coal ash seeping into surface water and groundwater supplies, as well as the bioaccumulation of toxins in fish. Recent reports show that contaminants from coal ash are migrating into the groundwater around the ash ponds and potentially jeopardizing the water supply of nearby residents that use well water.  Toxic constituents in coal ash may include one or more of the following elements or substances in quantities from trace amounts to several percent: arsenic, beryllium, boron, cadmium, chromium, chromium VI, cobalt, lead, manganese, mercury, molybdenum, selenium, strontium, thallium, and vanadium, along with dioxins and PAH compounds.  A 2007 assessment by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found that at least 23 states already have poisoned surface or groundwater supplies from improper disposal of coal ash, including Texas, Virginia, and the Carolinas.  Unfortunately, recent attempts to clean up the air emissions from coal-fired power plants by installing scrubbers have the unintended consequence of increasing the toxicity of the discharges to the water (see NY Times Article for more information). 

One of the best-documented cases of environmental contamination at Belews Lake, which is north of Greensboro, N.C., and the home of Duke's largest coal-fired powerplant. Studies found that Belews Lake was contaminated with dangerous levels of selenium, which, based on animal studies is believed to harm reproductive health.  Ash from the powerplant was placed in a settling basin, which released selenium-laden effluent to the Lake. Due to the selenium contamination, 16 of the 20 fish species originally present in the reservoir were wiped out, including all the primary sport fish. Although Duke changed its disposal practices in 1986, Dennis Lemly, a U.S. Forest Service research biologist,  found that the contaminant was still present at a moderate risk level in the lake’s sediment and was accumulating to toxic levels in fish eggs.

North Carolina is also home to another proven environmental damage case involving selenium at Caswell and Person counties’ Hyco Lake reservoir, constructed in 1964 as a cooling water source for Carolina Power & Light’s Roxboro Steam Electric Plant, now owned by Raleigh, N.C.-based Progress Energy. The state Department of Health and Human Services issued a fish consumption advisory at Hyco Lake in 1988, which was rescinded in 2001 after the company installed a dry ash handling system.

Ash Ponds on the Catawba-Wateree River

The Catawba River hosts three coal-fired power plants operated by Duke Power: Marshall Steam Station on Lake Norman, Riverbend Steam Station on Mtn. Island Lake and Allen Steam Station on Lake Wylie.  The Wateree River has an additional coal-fired powerplant operated by SCE&G. 

All of these facilities have wet ash handling systems similar to the ash ponds responsible for the contamination at Hyco Lake and Belews Lake.  While these three facilities help generate a substantial percentage of the electricity for our rapidly- growing region, we must remain cognizant of the direct dangers to our River they entail. These basins are directly adjacent to our River and contaminated water from the ash ponds enter directly into our lakes!  Because ground and surface water are intimately connected, surface water, sediment, fish and groundwater around these facilities should be monitored to ensure that no dangerous contaminants are leaving the site.  Over time, all of the ash ponds should either be closed and cleaned up, or at a minimum the ash ponds should be lined and the dam safety improved.  Water systems that rely on water that could be impacted by the ash ponds should have a contingency plan in place to deal with the impacts of a ash pond failure.
Riverbend Ash Ponds by J Wes Bobitt
The Riverbend Steam Station, which has two of the EPA top 45 high hazard ash ponds (pictured to the right), is located on Mountain Island Lake, which is the primary source of drinking water for approximately 860,000 people.  According to Duke Energy, all of the ash from Riverbend goes into unlined ash ponds, which discharge into Mountain Island Lake.  In October 2014, Duke submitted a plan to move coal ash from the Riverbend ash ponds to multiple locations including former clay pits in Chatham County, North Carolina.

The Allen Steam Station on Lake Wylie has a much larger unlined ash pond than Riverbend, but only bottom ash and boiler slag go into the ash pond.  Duke uses a dry ash handling system for flyash at Allen, and it landfills or sells synthetic gypsum and FGD solids (see

The Marshall Steam Station on Lake Norman, also has a very large unlined ash pond, as well as a large coal ash landfill.  According to Duke Energy, at Marshall only bottom ash and boiler slage go into the ash pond.  Duke uses a dry ash handling system for flyash, and it landfills synthetic gypsum and FGD solids (see

Beyond dike failure and seepage of contaminants, large precipitation events pose a significant threat of over-topping.  Currently, the North Carolina Utilities Commission (NCUC) requires an independent consultant inspection of ash basin dikes every 5 years.  These reports suggest that no visible signs of “imminent instability” were present. However, the reports for the Tennessee ash pond that failed did not note signs that it was about to fail.

With the TVA and Dan River events reminding us of the potential for environmental destruction, the Catawba Riverkeeper® Foundation keeps a watchful eye on all known “high hazard” areas to our River’s quality. With your help, we will continue to advocate for the Catawba - we’ll keep our eyes on the water and our voices speaking out for its protection!


For more information about coal ash:

  • Click here for video overview of coal ash issues
  • Click here for our coal ash fact sheet
  • Click here for coal ash disasters
  • Click here for information about coal ash recycling
  • Click here for more video reports about coal ash issues
  • Click here for library of coal ash documents
  • Click here for information about Duke Energy's plan to close their Riverbend Steam Station and coal ash ponds
  • Click here to return to issues page
  • Click below for information about coal ash at other organizations' web sites:


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