EPA Bails on Serious Coal Ash Regulation

EPA Bails on Serious Coal Ash Regulation December 22, 2014

Very disappointing move by the Obama administration. The EPA has announced that it will not classify coal ash, a toxic by-product of coal power generation, as a toxic waste but will regulate it only as a solid waste, like household trash.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Friday issued its first-ever regulations on coal ash, a toxic byproduct of burning coal for power. But to environmentalists’ chagrin, the agency declined to designate the substance as a hazardous waste.

Instead, coal ash will be regulated similarly to household garbage. EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy assured reporters on Friday that designating coal ash as solid waste, rather than hazardous waste, would be sufficient to prevent catastrophic spills of coal ash from the ponds the substance is often stored in, and to prevent it from leaching into groundwater, as it has in the past…

Coal ash — which often contains chemicals like arsenic, chromium, mercury, and lead — is the second-largest form of waste generated in the United States. After producing it, coal companies sometimes dispose of it by dumping it into ditches, and filling those ditches with water. Those ditches, called coal ash ponds or lagoons, are often unlined, meaning the coal ash comes in direct contact with the environment. It has, until now, never been federally regulated.

Under the new rule, all new coal ash pits must be lined. In addition, the hundreds of old, unlined pits must be immediately cleaned up — but only if they are found to be actively polluting groundwater, and only if they are attached to active power plants. That’s a problem for environmentalists, because hundreds of old, decrepit coal ash ponds are attached to coal plants that are no longer producing power. The EPA says it does not have legal authority to regulate those.

I don’t think this is anywhere near adequate. I’m glad that they’ll be requiring that coal ash ponds be lined, but given the huge number of old, unlined ponds that are just a disaster waiting to happen, something has to be done to clean them up before it’s too late and the local environment is destroyed.

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