In the Shadow of Sludge: The Legacy of Coal Waste In Appalachia


Coal mining in Appalachia played a key role in the economic development of the United States—supplying the energy for America's growth in the 20th century and fueling the production of steel and infrastructure. But despite the material wealth and expansion it enabled, Appalachia has long been a region marred by poverty and neglect. 

In addition to socioeconomic challenges, the history of coal mining in the region has left behind a legacy of environmental problems. This project focuses on one of those problems: the disposal of coal waste in large dams called impoundments. These facilities are responsible for some of the largest environmental disasters in U.S. history—but often only garner attention in the aftermath of a disaster. Further, very little is known about the communities near coal impoundments—and whether impoundments disproportionately impact the most socioeconomically disadvantaged communities in Appalachia. 

This project aims to inform the public, scholars, and other interested parties about both the history of coal impoundments and the communities closest to them. I begin with a brief overview of what coal impoundments are and the risks they pose. Then, I examine the history of coal impoundment regulation. I provide an interactive map of current coal impoundment locations—and discuss how coal impoundments could be a source of environmental inequality.

These elements can be accessed in order through the the story below, or via the Table of Contents menu in the upper-left hand corner of the page.

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  1. Introduction
  2. What Are Coal Impoundments?
  3. What are the risks?
  4. The History of Coal Impoundments in the U.S.
  5. Coal Impoundment Map
  6. Neighborhoods Near Coal Impoundments
  7. Coal Impoundment Resources

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