EPA issues new regulations for handling coal ash

The Obama Administration complied with a court order and unveiled the first rules for coal ash on Friday - but left it up to local authorities to decide on handling and storage of the toxic waste.

The new rules from the Environmental Protection Agency – issued in response to a lawsuit brought by Earthjustice and other campaign groups – will usher in the first controls for the handling and storage of coal ash, the toxic waste containing arsenic, mercury, and radioactive uranium left behind at coal-burning power plants.

But after pushback from industry, the EPA opted on Friday to treat coal ash as household trash – rather than hazardous waste as demanded by campaign groups – essentially leaving it to states and local governments to decide on its storage and disposal.

Gina McCarthy, the EPA administrator, insisted the new rules would significantly tighten protection at coal ash ponds and landfills.

“This is a huge step forward, where in the first time in our history we have clear, concise federal standards for these facilities moving forward,” she told reporters during a conference call Friday.

Campaign groups had warned in advance that the EPA was leaning towards a weaker control regimen for a waste product containing heavy metals and other toxic materials that has already caused extensive environmental damage.

In 2008, a catastrophic coal ash spill took out part of the town of Kingston, Tennessee. In February this year, a cascade of toxic grey sludge fouled a North Carolina river after a leak in a coal ash impoundment.

McCarthy insisted during the conference call that the new rules would prevent a repeat of such catastrophic leaks.

The rules set new standards for siting of new coal ash tanks to protect local groundwater supplies, as well as higher structural integrity standards for new and existing coal ash ponds and landfills.

They require monitoring of new and existing impoundments for contamination of groundwater. They would also force operators to install liners into new coal ash impoundments.

Operators would have to provide public information about standards at coal ash sites, the EPA said.

McCarthy said the new standards would require retrofitting of some of the existing 1,400 coal ash ponds and landfills. In rare cases, coal ash ponds that are leaking into groundwater will be shut down. “They are going to be on the hook to shut it down and clean it up,” McCarthy said. “Nobody from this day forward is going to be able to walk away from a facility.”

She said the EPA would begin working with states in January to put in place the new control regimen.

Campaign groups had pressed the EPA to designate coal ash as hazardous waste, which would have triggered stronger federal government controls.

Those regulations would have had “a lot more teeth”, said the Sierra Club’s Dalal Aboulhosn. “The fact that we haven’t had any federal regulations has been a huge hole. This is at least a first step in starting to regulate this very toxic waste.”

Until now, utility companies have had free rein in handling of coal ash. “They have been able to take what’s left from burning coal and throw it in the backyard without having to deal with it,” Aboulhosn said.

As a result, coal ash is often just dumped into giant, unlined pits beside rivers and lakes. Campaign groups have identified 1,400 such sites around the country. Many are old and poorly monitored.

The dumps, which contain known toxic materials, have been known to leak into groundwater and drinking water slowly over the course of many years, or erupt in catastrophic spills following a breach in a containment dam.

A report earlier this year found eight states – North Carolina, Kentucky, Missouri, Virginia, New Mexico, Montana, Indiana and Illinois – were at high risk of a spill, with coal ash stored in outdated and unlined ponds.

In 2008, 1bn gallons of ash and water burst through a holding pond at a Tennessee power plant, taking out homes and smothering more than 300 acres of land in coal slurry. The Tennessee Valley Authority was obliged to buy up nearly 200 houses and nearly 1,000 acres of land.

Last February, nearly 40,000 tonnes of coal ash spilled in North Carolina’s Dan River.

Friday’s expected announcement comes in response to a 2012 lawsuit brought by campaign groups to press the EPA to provide rules on coal ash.

Republican members of Congress as well as industry groups had applied counter-pressure, claiming new federal rules would be too costly for industry.

The Oklahoma Republican, James Inhofe, has said that he would review any new rules when he takes over as chair of the Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee next January. “My colleagues and I will intently review the impacts this rule could have to our economy and electricity reliability as well as highlight how states are leading the way on properly disposing and recycling coal ash,” Inhofe said in a statement.

Suzanne Goldenberg

This article first appeared on the guardian

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