Evidence for Coal Ash Ponds Leaking in the Southeastern United States

Jennifer S. Harkness, Barry Sulkin, Avner Vengosh

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

69 Scopus citations


Coal combustion residuals (CCRs), the largest industrial waste in the United States, are mainly stored in surface impoundments and landfills. Here, we examine the geochemistry of seeps and surface water from seven sites and shallow groundwater from 15 sites in five states (Tennessee, Kentucky, Georgia, Virginia, and North Carolina) to evaluate possible leaking from coal ash ponds. The assessment for groundwater impacts at the 14 sites in North Carolina was based on state-archived monitoring well data. Boron and strontium exceeded background values of 100 and 150 μg/L, respectively, at all sites, and the high concentrations were associated with low δ11B (-9‰ to +8‰) and radiogenic 87Sr/86Sr (0.7070 to 0.7120) isotopic fingerprints that are characteristic of coal ash at all but one site. Concentrations of CCR contaminants, including SO4, Ca, Mn, Fe, Se, As, Mo, and V above background levels, were also identified at all sites, but contamination levels above drinking water and ecological standards were observed in 10 out of 24 samples of impacted surface water. Out of 165 monitoring wells, 65 were impacted with high B levels and 49 had high CCR-contaminant levels. Distinct isotope fingerprints, combined with elevated levels of CCR tracers, provide strong evidence for the leaking of coal ash ponds to adjacent surface water and shallow groundwater. Given the large number of coal ash impoundments throughout the United States, the systematic evidence for leaking of coal ash ponds shown in this study highlights potential environmental risks from unlined coal ash ponds.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)6583-6592
Number of pages10
JournalEnvironmental Science & Technology
Issue number12
StatePublished - 21 Jun 2016
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Chemistry (all)
  • Environmental Chemistry


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