Distracted and dismayed by oil rig explosions, massive oil spills, and volcanic ash clouds? Speaking of ash, here’s one that perhaps escaped the attention it deserves: The Environmental Protection Agency wants to regulate coal ash with new rules that will ensure the “safe disposal and management” of ash produced from coal-fired power plants.
Coal ash is known more formally as coal combustion residuals; it is the byproduct of coal combustion and is disposed in liquid form in large surface impoundments and in solid form at landfills.
The residuals contain contaminants such as mercury, cadmium and arsenic, which are associated with cancer and various other serious health effects. The EPA said its 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 agency’s proposed rules will require, for the first time, that protective controls such as liners and groundwater monitoring are in place 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 that store coal ash in dry form, the EPA says. There are nearly 900 coal ash landfills and surface impoundments, nationwide.
The regulations “will ensure stronger oversight of the structural integrity of impoundments in order to prevent accidents” like the one at Kingston, TN in 2008, EPA says. The proposal also will “promote environmentally safe and desirable forms of recycling coal ash, known as beneficial uses.”
The dangers associated with structurally unsafe coal ash impoundments came to national attention in 2008 when an impoundment holding disposed waste ash generated by the Tennessee Valley Authority broke open and created a massive spill in Kingston that covered millions of cubic yards of land and river. The spill displaced residents, required hundreds of millions of dollars in cleanup costs and caused widespread environmental damage. Shortly afterward EPA began monitoring the cleanup, as well as investigating the structural integrity of impoundments where ash waste is stored.
The EPA 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 on EPA’s Web site.
Under each proposed approach EPA would leave in place the so-called 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 in concrete, cement, wallboard and other contained applications that should not involve any exposure by the public to unsafe contaminants, EPA says. These uses would not be impacted by the proposed rules, but the agency is seeking public comment on how to frame the continued exemption, and is focusing in particular on whether the exemption should exclude certain non-contained applications where contaminants in coal ash could pose risks to human health.
The public comment period will close 90 days after the date the rule is published in the Federal Register.
Another welcome first for the EPA and its continuing scrutiny of Big Coal.