EPA Proposes First-Ever Coal Ash Rules

The US Environmental Protection Agency on Tuesday proposed the first-ever national rules for disposal and management of coal ash from coal-fired power plants.

Since a disastrous spill in Kingston, Tennessee in December 2008, EPA has been under pressure to regulate the byproducts of the combustion of coal at power plants. They are generally disposed of in liquid form at large surface impoundments and in solid form at landfills.

The residuals contain contaminants like mercury, cadmium and arsenic, which are associated with cancer and various other serious health effects. EPA’s risk assessment and damage cases demonstrate that, without proper protections, these contaminants can leach into groundwater and can migrate to drinking water sources, posing significant health public concerns.

The new rules call for protective controls, such as liners and groundwater monitoring, at new landfills to protect groundwater and human health. Existing surface impoundments will also require liners, with strong incentives to close the impoundments and transition to safer landfills, which store coal ash in dry form.

EPA said the proposed regulations will ensure stronger oversight of the structural integrity of impoundments in order to prevent accidents like the one in Tennessee.

The EPA’s proposal calls for public comment on two approaches for
addressing the risks of coal ash management under the nation’s primary
law for regulating solid waste, the Resource Recovery and Conservation
Act (RCRA). One option is drawn from authorities available under
Subtitle C, which creates a comprehensive program of federally
enforceable requirements for waste management and disposal. The other
option includes remedies under Subtitle D, which gives EPA authority to
set performance standards for waste management facilities and would be
enforced primarily through citizen suits. A chart comparing and
contrasting the two approaches is available on EPA’s Web site.

Under both approaches proposed by EPA, the agency would leave in place
the Bevill exemption for beneficial uses of coal ash in which coal
combustion residuals are recycled as components of products instead of
placed in impoundments or landfills. Large quantities of coal ash are
used today in concrete, cement, wallboard and other contained
applications that should not involve any exposure by the public to
unsafe contaminants. 

EPA is seeking public comment on how to frame the continued exemption of
beneficial uses from regulation and is focusing in particular on
whether that exemption should exclude certain non-contained applications
where contaminants in coal ash could pose risks to human health. The
public comment period is 90 days from the date the rule is published in
the Federal Register.  

“The time has come for common-sense national protections to ensure the safe disposal of coal ash,” said EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson. “We’re proposing strong steps to address the serious risk of groundwater contamination and threats to drinking water and we’re also putting in place stronger safeguards against structural failures of coal ash impoundments. The health and the environment of all communities must be protected.”

Coal combustion residual impoundments can be found in almost all states across America, most often on the properties of power plants. There are almost 900 landfills and surface impoundments nationwide. Since the spill at Kingston, EPA has been evaluating the structural integrity of hundreds of coal ash impoundments throughout the country.

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