The EPA today announced the first national rule for protecting the public from coal plant waste and coal fly ash, the residual that’s left after coal has been burned.
The proposed regulation comes six years after the 2008 failure of a coal ash impoundment in Kingston, Tenn., spilled more than 1 billion gallons of coal fly ash slurry into the Emory River and across a 300 surrounding acres.
Kingston’s environmental disaster, triggered when a wall of the 40-year old Tennessee Valley River Authority containment pond failed, is still being cleaned up today. It was the impetus of the EPA’s move to tighten federal oversight.
A coal ash spill into the Dan River near Danville, North Carolina, last February lent urgency to the EPA’s plans for new rules. The Dan River incident, the result of a leaking pipe from a slurry pond owned by Duke Energy, caused extensive river pollution. Tests imediately after the spill by the Waterkeeper Alliance found arsenic, chromium, iron, lead and other toxic metals at levels above safe thresholds in the Dan River.
Coal ash contains those toxics. But the EPA’s Disposal of Coal Combustion Residuals from Electric Utilities rule does not classify the waste as “hazardous,” as many toxics are legally defined. Instead, the EPA will treat coal ash and related coal slurry as plain waste and provides for the safe recycling of some coal waste.
Fly ash has long been used as a fill product in concrete, and the EPA endorses this use. Specifically, the agency allows the use of fly ash in wallboard, concrete, roofing materials, and bricks, as long as it is encapsulated.
Fly ash has also been recycled for use as a filler in road beds, and this use has been problematic, with reports of toxic leaching.
Environmentalists had wanted a more stringent rule from the EPA.
“Today’s rule doesn’t prevent more tragic spills like the ones we are still trying to clean up in North Carolina and Tennessee. And it won’t stop the slower moving disaster that is unfolding for communities around the country, as leaky coal ash ponds and dumps poison water,” said Lisa Evans, an attorney with Earthjustice.
The group, which represents varying coalitions of environmental groups, sued the EPA in 2012 pressing for stricter rules around coal waste.
Sierra Club also said the rule is inadequate. “While EPA and the Obama Administration have taken a modest first step by introducing some protections on the disposal of coal ash, they do not go far enough to protect families from this toxic pollution,” said Mary Ann Hitt, director of Sierra’s Beyond Coal Campaign. “We welcome federal efforts on this issue, but Sierra Club has significant concerns about what has been omitted from these protections and how they will be enforced in states that have historically had poor track records on coal ash disposal.
Since the Kingston disaster in 2008, the EPA has inspected more than 500 coal waste facilities across the US, and has determined that improperly constructed or managed containment units can be linked to 160 cases of harm to groundwater or the air, the EPA said in a statement.
EPA’s plan for greater oversight calls for regular structural inspections to catch problems before coal waste containment facilities fail. Facilities found to have engineering or structural issues will be closed and not allowed to receive additional coal ash.
The rule also will require:
- Greater transparency from power plant owners and operators so that communities and states can better understand the risks from potential coal ash contamination.
- Restrictions on the location of new surface impoundments and landfills so that they cannot be built in sensitive, easily breached areas such as wetlands and earthquake zones.
- The closure of unlined surface impoundments that are polluting groundwater.
- Protecting communities from “fugitive dust” from windblown coal ash.
- Requiring liner barriers for new coal waste units and proper closure (as opopsed to abandonment) of surface impoundments and landfills that will no longer receive coal waste.
“These strong safeguards will protect drinking water from contamination, air from coal ash dust, and our communities from structural failures, while providing facilities a practical approach for implementation,” said EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy.
Find out more about coal fly ash.