The Biden administration on Tuesday took its first significant move toward corralling lingering and widespread problems with the toxic ash produced by coal-fired power plants, one of the nation’s most prominent long-term environmental health legacies from more than a century of coal-fired electricity generation.
In 2015, the EPA under the Obama administration put forth the first national rules on coal ash, which required most of the nation’s approximately 500 unlined coal ash surface impoundments to stop receiving waste and begin closing by April 2021. These ash dumps are often contaminated with contaminants such as mercury, arsenic and cadmium. They also pollute groundwater, sending particulate pollution into nearby communities.
The Trump administration allowed utilities to ask for extensions. However, the Biden Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced Tuesday that it will be taking action on nine out of 57 extension requests. It will deny three, approve one, find four incomplete, and declare one ineligible. Officials at the EPA said that more determinations are expected.
The EPA stated that it had sent notices to several power plants regarding their obligations to follow rules and was currently working on future regulations to ensure that coal ash dumps comply with safety and environmental standards.
In the agency’s action on the nine requests, environmental lawyers saw reason for optimism.
Abel Russ, a senior attorney with the group Environmental Integrity Project, said EPA’s proposed actions show that it understands that utilities are not properly monitoring groundwater in ways that can preclude cleanup requirements.
“It’s a start of a process where we hope to see enforcement from multiple levels,” said Russ, the lead author of a 2019 report that used utility records to determine that there were unsafe levels of toxic contaminants in groundwater linked to more than nine out of every 10 coal-fired power plants.
The Southern Environmental Law Center, which has litigated and won coal ash cleanup cases in states like North Carolina and South Carolina, said EPA’s determinations set a precedent for compliance nationwide.
“The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has stepped up to offer communities hope and to protect clean water, rivers, and drinking water supplies from the threats posed by coal ash,” said Frank Holleman, a senior attorney at the law center. “With EPA’s leadership, we now have the opportunity to put coal ash pollution and catastrophes behind us and to restore common sense protections for communities across the South who have lived with coal ash contamination for far too long.”
The Edison Electric Institute, a trade group that represents investor owned utilities, has long maintained that electric companies are managing coal ash “in ways that put safety first, protect the environment, minimize impacts to the community, and manage costs for customers.”
Brian Reil, spokesperson for the Institute, didn’t immediately respond to inquiries about the EPA’s actions. Jim Roewer, executive director of Utility Solid Waste Activities group, which is an association of more that 131 utilities, did not respond to requests for comment.
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The agency announced its proposed determinations and stated that it was confirming its belief that ash disposal pits and landfills cannot be closed with ash in direct contact with groundwater. It stated that limiting contact between coal ash, groundwater and the landfill after closure is crucial to minimize releases of contaminants into environment and contamination of water for drinking or recreation.
“I’ve seen first-hand how coal ash contamination can hurt people and communities,” EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan said in announcing Tuesday’s action. “Coal ash surface impoundments and landfills must operate and close in a manner that protects public health and the environment. Today’s actions will help us protect communities and hold facilities accountable.”
After coal is burned to produce electricity, coal ash and other combustion materials are left behind. Mercury, cadmium, arsenic and other combustion wastes in waste piles can pollute air and groundwater. They are linked with cancer and other diseases. Over the past century, hundreds have been operating power plants that produced billions upon billions of tons of ash, other combustion wastes, and scrubber sludge.
Lisa Evans, a senior attorney specializing in hazardous waste law at Earthjustice, a national environmental law organization, described the new EPA proposed actions, taken together, as a potential “game changer.” She said they signal that the agency intends to use enforcement powers that it has not previously employed to crack down on what she described as “blatant noncompliance” by utilities that has left what are often communities of color exposed to toxic pollution.
Still, Evans noted that the EPA announcement does not address the problem of coal ash that was dumped and buried before the 2015 EPA regulations went into effect—perhaps as much as half of all the coal ash ever produced.
Last year, Evans told Inside Climate News that such legacy ash was escaping the EPA’s monitoring and corrective action requirements, resulting in a “poisonous legacy, which could last permanently at many, many sites.”
Source: Inside Climate News