Coal Ash 101

Coal ash is the toxic waste that remains after coal is burned. It contains high concentrations of heavy metals, including mercury, arsenic, selenium, and chromium, which are hazardous to human health, wildlife, and waterways located in proximity to coal ash plants.

At Plant Barry, the ash is collected and then transported to a massive coal ash pond. There the toxins in coal ash essentially dissolve into the water in the pond. This toxin-filled water sits behind an earthen dam where it can leak into groundwater or potentially catastrophically spill into the nearby Mobile River. 

How does coal ash impact Human Health?

Coal ash contains heavy metals and elements that can become toxic to humans and wildlife. For example:

Mercury - nervous system damage and developmental effects for children and infants

Chromium - stomach and intestinal ulcers, anemia, stomach cancer, asthma, wheezing, and lunch cancer

Selenium - impaired vision and paralysis

Lead - brain swelling, kidney disease, cardiovascular problems, and nervous system damage

Arensic - nervous system damage, cardiovascular issues, urinary tract cancers, lung cancer, and skin cancer

Boron - eye, nose, and throat irritation, damage to intestines, liver, kidneys, and the brain

Workers who cleaned up a huge spill from a coal ash pond in Tennessee in 2008 are still suffering—and dying. 36 workers so far have died from brain cancer, lung cancer, leukemia, and other diseases related to the spill.

Coal Ash pours out of pipes into the more than 600 acre pond at Plant Barry in Bucks, Al. (Picture - U.S. EPA)

Coal Ash pours out of pipes into the more than 600 acre pond at Plant Barry in Bucks, Al. (Picture - U.S. EPA)

What is the big deal?

Once coal is burned, the ash is transported with water through pipes into coal ash ponds. These lagoons allow the toxins in coal ash to dissolve into the water. Most coal plants are located directly next to rivers and lakes that provide drinking water, recreation, and habitat for wildlife. These lagoons are often earthen dams with no liners, making it possible to leak into the groundwater or surface water, and thus contaminate the closest river or lake.