EPA Coal Ash Rule Sends Mixed Signal on Strong, Federally Enforceable Safeguards

For Immediate Release

Contact: 

Jared Saylor, (202) 667-4500, ext. 213

EPA Coal Ash Rule Sends Mixed Signal on Strong, Federally Enforceable Safeguards

Leaves open the possibility that at least half of all toxic ash will remain unregulated

WASHINGTON - The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency proposed two options to
regulate coal ash dry dumps and waste ponds. One option offers a
groundbreaking solution to closing and monitoring leaking toxic dumps,
while the other option perpetuates the status quo, ensuring that coal
ash will continue to threaten lives and communities. The EPA must
embrace the stronger option in order to protect public health and the
environment.

Today, the Agency published the proposed federal regulation of coal ash -- the first of its kind -- in the Federal Register.
The plan seeks comment on two separate proposals: one that regulates
coal ash as a "special waste," with strong, federally enforceable
requirements for monitoring and cleanup, and another that treats coal
ash as a "non-hazardous waste" and offers only guidelines that leave
many communities at risk of exposure to toxic contaminants found in
coal ash. Under the weaker option, the EPA assumes that in Alabama,
Arizona, Georgia, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Mississippi,
Montana, Ohio, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia and Wyoming, coal ash dumps
and waste ponds will retain their current status quo: poorly regulated,
unprotected and unsafe. Thus even in Tennessee, where the largest
environmental disaster occurred short of the Gulf oil spill, the EPA
predicts that protections will not be put in place.

The two-rule option demonstrates the power and influence of
lobbyists for the coal and power industries who continue to block the
EPA attempts at strong coal ash safeguards that protect communities.
The EPA's 'special waste' proposal is the only way to guarantee the
closure of the most dangerous waste ponds, ensure strong federal
oversight and cleanup of contaminated streams, rivers and drinking
water supplies, and protect communities across the country from coal
ash contamination. The EPA itself admits that under its weaker option,
many states will not adopt strict federal guidelines and that
approximately 50% of the coal ash generated in the U.S. will continue
to be managed under state programs that do not require basic disposal
safeguards. Power plants in the U.S. produce enough coal ash annually
to fill train cars stretching from the North Pole to the South Pole.

Below is a brief summary the EPA provided of its two regulatory options for coal ash:

Regulating coal ash as a "special waste":

  • Requires phase out of waste ponds within five years.
  • Eliminates health risks from groundwater and surface water
    contamination for both coal ash dumps and waste ponds, and avoids
    damages from uncontrolled ground "fill" operations and attendant
    environmental remediation costs.
  • Eliminates the future threat of catastrophic failures of waste ponds.
  • Provides for corrective action, including at closed units at
    facilities with waste ponds or dumps regulated under the rule, and
    imposes groundwater monitoring requirements.
  • Provides for Federal oversight, which EPA experience has
    shown is necessary for successful implementation of…industrial waste
    regulations, especially as it relates to groundwater monitoring and
    corrective action, when needed.

Regulating coal ash as a "non-hazardous waste" (emphasis added):

  • Requirements would not be enforceable by the EPA or the states
    (unless states had similar requirements under state law). Lack of
    enforcement and Federal oversight may significantly reduce compliance
    and effective implementation of regulatory requirements.
  • Liners required for all coal ash waste ponds but only for
    new landfills. This option sets national criteria for landfills and
    waste ponds that manage coal ash after the rule goes into effect. For
    any coal ash dumps and waste ponds that closed before the effective
    date, there would be no regulatory controls over those units, unless
    the states choose to adopt controls over such units.
  • Eliminates some ground-water contamination over the current
    situation (e.g., because of waste pond retrofitting), thus avoiding
    some damage cases, again assuming effective implementation.
  • Requires review of waste ponds for stability by independent
    experts, but because these ponds could remain in operation (because
    they are currently lined or owners choose to retrofit line them rather
    than phase them out), there would still be a risk of future structural
    failures of waste ponds.

"Only one road leads to protecting public health and the environment
from toxic coal ash and collapsing ponds -- and the EPA has clearly
laid out this option," said Lisa Evans, Senior Administrative Counsel
at Earthjustice. "If the EPA predicts that the dangerous conditions
will persist under the weaker option, that option must be left by the
wayside."

"If the ongoing BP oil disaster and the Tennessee coal ash tragedy
taught us anything, it's that we can no longer ignore scientific and
safety concerns without a very high cost," said Lyndsay Moseley, Sierra
Club coal ash analyst and Tennessee native. "EPA should issue
enforceable federal safeguards quickly before more communities are
exposed to toxic coal ash."

"The voluntary guidance EPA has proposed as a second option just
kicks the ball back to state agencies, which have already been
overwhelmed and outmatched by the coal lobby," said Jeff Stant,
Director of the Coal Combustion Waste Initiative at the Environmental
Integrity Project. "The states' failure to enforce standards has led to
at least 71 sites where EPA admits coal ash has contaminated drinking
water, injured wildlife, or caused other environmental or property
damage, as well as untold other damaged sites that we do not know about
because so many coal ash dumps do no monitoring at all. EPA needs to do
the right thing by getting uniform standards in place, and having the
guts to enforce them."

"Coal ash that is being disposed meets the chemical definition of a
hazardous waste. As a hazardous waste, coal ash needs to be disposed in
a properly engineered landfill so deadly chemicals do not leach into
our drinking water sources or threaten our environment and wildlife,"
said Scott Slesinger, Legislative Director, Natural Resources Defense
Council. "All other industrial hazardous waste must meet these
requirements; there is no rationale for treating this waste
differently. We expect the EPA to finalize this rule so it protects
human health and the environment."

 

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Earthjustice is a non-profit public interest law firm dedicated to protecting the magnificent places, natural resources, and wildlife of this earth, and to defending the right of all people to a healthy environment. We bring about far-reaching change by enforcing and strengthening environmental laws on behalf of hundreds of organizations, coalitions and communities.

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