Pain in the Ash: Part II- The Reckoning

The Environmental Law Monitor reported earlier this year on battles between environmental activists and power plants over the controversial storage of toxic coal ash waste near waterways and in landfills. The battle rages on this week after the EPA finalized a rule on July 17, 2018 that reduces Obama-era requirements for handling and storing the dangerous waste, thrilling the coal industry and evoking anxiety from activists.

Acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler enacted a new standard for storing coal ash at more than 400 coal-fired power plants throughout the country. This rule will extend the life of some existing “ash ponds” from the previous elimination deadline of April 2019 to October 2020, permits states to suspend groundwater monitoring, and allows state officials (rather than federal) to determine whether facilities are meeting the required standards.

The new rule will allow coal ash impoundments that are at risk for leaks to operate until October 2020, and will allow states to establish their own risk-based standards for substances for which there are no federally mandated maximum contaminant levels (MCLs).

The Obama administration worked for years on toughening the safe storage requirements for producers of coal ash waste. The EPA’s 2015 rule regarding coal ash waste increased the number of inspections and the frequency of monitoring coal ash disposal sites. The previous rule also required additional safety measures at storage sites that were near drinking water sources. The 2018 rule incorporates several sticking points proposed by the coal industry, including suspension of ongoing groundwater monitoring if no leaks or contamination are detected. The new rules mark a major policy shift away from servicing the goals of environmental groups and towards assuaging the concerns of the coal industry by permitting more flexibility with adherence to coal ash regulations. This change will save millions in annual compliance costs, but environmentalists argue that the safety of American groundwater is at risk.

During public hearings, the audience in attendance opposed the reduction in standards and specifically noted EPA Acting Administrator Wheeler’s ‘s background as a coal lobbyist. EPA officials said they received roughly 160,000 comments on the proposed rule but declined to say how many people favored or opposed it.

The July 17, 2018 ruling will be followed by a second one, most likely in 2019, to address how to recycle coal ash to make concrete, gypsum wallboard and pavement.