(Bloomberg) — The Obama administration issued the first
rules for coal ash at power plants, drawing complaints from
environmentalists for abandoning a proposal to deem it hazardous
and to deal with risks at old, abandoned sites.
The rule from the Environmental Protection Agency today
follows contamination by coal ash — the nation’s second-largest
industrial waste after mining material — at two sites in the
southeast. Environmental advocates said that the rules may not
do much to prevent the next pollution catastrophe.
“Every little bit is helpful, but this was a baby step,”
said Pete Harrison, a lawyer for Waterkeeper Alliance, a group
that pushes for protection of rivers and lakes. “We weren’t
prepared for how flimsy this rule would be.”
The EPA’s rule caps almost three decades of fighting by
industry to fend off attempts to control the disposal of ash
left after coal is burned for power. Coal ash, which can contain
arsenic, lead, mercury and selenium, is collected in more than
1,000 ponds or dry landfills across the nation. Each year, the
U.S. generates 110 million tons of coal ash.
The EPA vowed to issue a rule after a devastating 2008
spill at a Tennessee Valley Authority sludge pond in Kingston,
Tennessee, flooded 300 acres (121 hectares), destroying homes
and contaminating tributaries of the Tennessee River.
On Feb. 2, a Duke Energy Corp. coal-ash pond in North
Carolina that has been closed sprung a leak and dumped an
estimated 39,000 tons of waste into the Dan River, which snakes
between North Carolina and Virginia. Duke says it has spent
about $20 million cleaning up that spill.
In its proposal, the agency said it’s requiring owners to
review the integrity of waste structures, in order to prevent
the kind of rupture that struck Kingston. They also must monitor
the water quality nearby. All the information must be posted
online to give residents the ability to seek changes.
“That will open the utility up to liability and allow
public citizens to sue,” EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said
In 2010, the EPA offered two approaches for coal ash:
classifying it as hazardous, giving the agency authority over
permits and enforcement, and requiring liners for sludge ponds;
or setting standards, and leaving enforcement to the states.
Companies that turn the ash into materials used to make
cement, wallboard or other construction materials complained
that a hazardous classification would kill recycling. The
decision today is a boon to that industry. It also means that
federal regulators won’t directly enforce the rule.
Utility industry representatives said the EPA didn’t rule
out ever labeling the coal ash as hazardous, and that’s a risk
for their industry.
“The possibility of hazardous waste regulation will
perpetuate the regulatory uncertainty that undermines the many
beneficial uses of recycling coal ash,” said Jim Roewer,
executive director of the Utility Solid Waste Activities Group.
The EPA also declined to seek to close all coal ponds,
which are more likely to leak or have a dam wall burst. Instead,
only those ponds with leaks or engineering problems will be
forced to shut, McCarthy said.
Environmentalists were pushing EPA to force companies
either to line their ponds or disband the use of such wet
disposal. They also wanted EPA to tackle the problem of waste
pits that no longer have more waste being added to them. EPA
said it didn’t have the authority to regulate most of those.
“While EPA’s coal-ash rule takes some long overdue steps
to establish minimum national groundwater monitoring and cleanup
standards, it relies too heavily on the industry to police
itself,” Eric Schaeffer, executive director of the
Environmental Integrity Project, said in a statement.
In a separate action, the Interior Department issued a plan
that would effectively increase the payments that coal producers
must make from mining on public land. The change follows
analyses from outside groups saying mining companies weren’t
being charged market rates for the public resources.
“Coal produced on public lands is an important part of our
domestic energy portfolio, but we have an obligation –- and we
are fully committed –- to ensure that the American taxpayer
receives a fair return for the production of domestic energy
resources,” Mike Connor, deputy secretary, said in a statement.
To contact the reporter on this story:
Mark Drajem in Washington at
To contact the editors responsible for this story:
Jon Morgan at
Steve Geimann, Larry Liebert