UPDATE: EPA’s New Coal Ash Rule Leaves Communities, Environment at Risk

UPDATE (1/8/15):  On Dec. 19, 2014, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) finalized its long-anticipated coal ash rule, addressing the disposal of toxic waste generated by burning coal. To the disappointment of many public health and environmental advocates, the final rule classifies coal ash as a “solid waste,” similar to standard household garbage, instead of designating it as a “hazardous waste.”

The hazardous waste option would have required special handling, transportation, and disposal methods, which would have safeguarded the public and our environment from many of the dangers coal ash poses. Instead, EPA chose the option that imposes less stringent requirements on companies and that leaves each state with primary oversight of coal ash disposal within its borders.

Despite this setback, there are some positives in the new rule. New disposal sites cannot be located in areas designated as wetlands or earthquake zones and must have protective liners to prevent groundwater contamination. The rule also requires companies to conduct monitoring of disposal sites, clean up any contamination, and close unlined disposal sites that have polluted groundwater. Monitoring data, corrective action reports, and other important information about the site must be made available to the public. Any site that fails to comply with the new standards is prohibited from receiving coal ash for disposal. 

While the new rule is an important first step toward protecting public health and the environment from toxic coal ash, it is not stringent enough to prevent more coal ash spills from happening again in the future.

. . . 

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will take final action on coal ash standards by the end of the year, according to a settlement reached by EPA and groups involved in a lawsuit against the agency. The consent decree, filed yesterday in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, requires EPA to publish notice of a final action by Dec. 19, 2014.

More than five years ago, a massive spill of coal ash in Kingston, TN released 1.1 billion gallons of toxic sludge across 300 acres, sparking intensified calls for the regulation of coal ash, a waste byproduct of burning coal that can contain a variety of toxic substances, including heavy metals.

In 2010, EPA proposed two options for regulating coal ash:

  • The first option would designate coal ash as a hazardous waste under Subtitle C of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), requiring special handling, transportation, and disposal, and would closely monitor any potential reuse. This option would be the most protective of Americans' health and the environment.

  • The second option would regulate coal ash under RCRA Subtitle D, which would limit EPA's responsibility and authority over coal ash management.

Environmental groups frustrated with the lack of progress filed a lawsuit in 2012 to compel EPA to complete a review of the regulations applying to coal ash and issue necessary revisions.

On Oct. 29, the court issued a memorandum opinion ordering EPA to submit a plan for finalizing the coal ash rulemaking process it began in 2010. The order did not specify a deadline for completing the review but required EPA to propose its own schedule for complying with the “obligation to review and revise if necessary its Subtitle D regulations concerning coal ash.”

The settlement just released requires the EPA administrator to “sign for publication in the Federal Register a notice taking final action regarding EPA’s proposed revision of RCRA subtitle D regulations pertaining to coal combustion residuals” by Dec. 19 but does not speak to the content of the final rule.

Unfortunately, as communities have waited for government action, inadequate controls have allowed for preventable incidents across the country. Coal ash has already contaminated more than 200 rivers, lakes, streams, and aquifers with toxic pollutants like arsenic, lead, selenium, and mercury. Earthjustice, which filed the lawsuit on behalf of the environmental groups, has collected troubling stories of contamination and spills from 37 states including Missouri, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Alaska, Kentucky, and many more that are dealing with their own environmental disasters.

The organizations involved in the lawsuit released a statement celebrating the deadline. “But,” they noted, “this deadline alone is not enough. EPA needs to finalize a federally enforceable rule that will clean up the air and water pollution that threatens people in hundreds of communities across the country. Coal ash has poisoned too many lakes, rivers, streams and groundwater aquifers. It is time to close dangerous unlined ash impoundments like the one that burst at Kingston.”

Editor's Note: This article was originally authored by Katie Greenhaw and published on Jan. 30, 2014 with the title "EPA Commits to Deadline for Final Action on Coal Ash Rule."

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Why would CCR be considered hazardous when it's not?