Coal Ash Rules and the EPA

 

Coal ash poses significant threats to waterways and communities across the country, but particularly here in the Southeast where we have a disproportionate number of sites. For decades, the public and environment have been completely unprotected from these dangers with major gaps in oversight and regulation at both the state and federal levels. While the 2008 Kingston disaster in Tennessee was finally an impetus, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) still took over 6 years to finalize comprehensive regulation of coal combustion residuals. Now, EPA is in the process of finally establishing long-overdue rules for coal plant water pollution by September 2015.

 

EPA Coal Plant Water Pollution Standards 

aka: Effluent Limitation Guidelines

Coal plants are the number one source of toxic water pollution in the U.S., however 4 out of 5 coal plants in the U.S. have no limits on the amount of toxics (or effluents) they are allowed to dump into our water. Current standards governing water pollution from power plants have not been updated in over 30 years, and the EPA has repeatedly acknowledged that guidelines have not kept pace with developments in the industry. The proposed new standards under the Clean Water Act have the potential to limit the amount of toxic metals and other chemicals that can be dumped in our water. Because this rule is being “harmonized” with the coal ash combustion and disposal rule (see below), it will play an important role in determining the level of protection in a solid waste rule.

The Effluent Limitation Guidelines are due to be finalized by September 30, 2015, so the time to act is now. Email President Obama today and ask him to make sure EPA finalizes the strongest pollution limits to protect our rivers, lakes, and streams from toxic power plant pollution!

Click here for a factsheet to learn more about coal plant water pollution and the proposed standards.

Click here to see what issues coal plant water pollution standards will address.

 

EPA’s Coal Ash Rule 

On December 19, 2014, nearly six years after the Kingston Disaster, EPA released the Disposal of Coal Combustion Residuals from Electric Utilities final rule otherwise known as the coal ash rule. EPA is now regulating coal ash under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), but despite the clear risks, the agency declined to classify the toxic substance as “hazardous” under RCRA. This means that states are not required to implement the rule and the federal government cannot enforce the rule—leaving enforcement to the utilities (and other owners) themselves, the states, and via citizen suits. While the rule does set minimum federal standards for coal ash, its effectiveness in preventing disasters like the Dan River spill and the tragedy in Kingston will depend greatly on implementation or lack thereof by the utilities and the states.

 

Weaknesses of the rule

Aside from failing to treat coal ash as a hazardous waste, EPA’s new rule has other major deficiencies. Unlike earlier proposed versions, the final rule allows for the continued storage of coal ash in unlined ponds, and the very definition of “unlined” is changing to allow for utilities to only use compacted clay or soil to serve as a “liner”. We believe the only truly safe way to deal with coal ash is to move it from unlined impoundments and place it in dry, lined landfills away from waterways.

Coal ash lagoon at Duke Energy's Riverbend Power Station on Mountain Island Lake.

Coal ash lagoon at Duke Energy’s Riverbend Power Station on Mountain Island Lake.

Additionally, although there are groundwater-monitoring standards requiring corrective action from utilities for some pollutants, chloride, sulfide, manganese, boron, and several other pollutants are not included. EPA also will not require inactive coal ash impoundments at inactive power plants to close under the new rule. These sites are often unlined and may be leaching dangerous toxins into local waterways and drinking water supplies.

 

Potential strengths of the rule

The new rule establishes groundwater-monitoring requirements for many coal ash impoundments and landfill sites, including corrective action requirements for some dangerous pollutants. By January 31, 2018, owners and operators will be subject to reporting requirements for their groundwater monitoring and corrective action programs. This information could be valuable for state agencies and advocates to hold utilities accountable for polluting ground and surface waters.

The rule also creates location restrictions for where new impoundments can be sited and establishes closure requirements if existing sites do not meet these requirements. This aspect of the rule could protect sensitive wetlands and aquifers from coal ash pollution and protect communities from the dangers of siting coal ash impoundments in unstable areas.

The new rule requires closure of unlined coal ash impoundments if they exceed certain pollution limits, and requires all ponds at active power plants to meet safety and location requirements or face closure. These requirements are excitingly strong when triggered and could lead to the eventual closure of some of the worst and most dangerous coal ash containment sites.

Many of the reporting requirements in the rule will eventually be accessible to the public via public websites. Owners and operators will be required to publish data and demonstrate that sites comply with location standards, results of annual groundwater monitoring, liner types, recent construction history, reports of corrective actions, and several other pieces of information that could be helpful for communities, public officials, and advocates in assessing the real risks to public and environmental health posed by coal ash storage facilities.