Science

First-Ever Federal Coal Ash Rules Disappoint Environmental Groups

Plant Scherer is the largest coal plant in the country.
Plant Scherer is the largest coal plant in the country.
Credit Gene Blythe / Associated Press
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The Environmental Protection Agency has released its first-ever regulations on coal ash, a byproduct from burning coal that can contain arsenic, lead, mercury and cadmium.

“This is a huge step forward,” said EPA administrator Gina McCarthy. “For the first time in our history we have clear, concise standards for these facilities moving forward.”

Environmentalists have been pushing for federal regulations on coal ash for years. In 2008, a dike on a coal ash pond in Kingston, Tennessee, broke. It flooded homes and rivers with dark gray sludge, and has cost more than a billion dollars to clean up.

This new rule will require groundwater monitoring around coal ash ponds. And ponds that are unsafe will have to be closed.

But the rules the EPA unveiled are not the ones environmentalists were advocating for. They wanted coal ash to be classified as a hazardous waste, which would have required federal enforcement and stricter rules. Instead, it will be considered solid waste. Enforcement will be left up to the states and private citizens, by way of lawsuits.

“EPA is largely delegating authority to the states and the utilities,” said Ulla Reeves of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.

“I’m disappointed,” said Stephanie Stuckey Benfield, executive director of GreenLaw, an environmental law firm in Georgia. “It can sometimes cost tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands to get the experts and the resources together to bring a citizen suit. So these aren’t always easy options.”          

There are more than twenty coal ash ponds in Georgia. Coal plants in the state generated more than 2.1 million tons of byproducts, including coal ash, in 2013. And more than half of that is reused. It goes into concrete, road beds and embankments.

Coal ash recycling is big business. According to Thomas H. Adams, executive director of the American Coal Ash Association, it’s at least a $9 billion industry. So he was relieved to see coal ash avoid the “hazardous” designation.   

“If they did apply hazardous waste regulations for any reason, it would be devastating to recycling markets,” Adams said.

The Georgia Environmental Protection Division also welcomed the EPA’s decision. In comments in 2010, before the rule was finalized, the EPD said it didn’t think federal regulation was necessary. But if it had to happen, the “waste” classification was preferable.

In response to the announcement today, the EPD’s chief of the land protection branch, Jeff Cown said solid waste “is a more reasonable approach.”

The EPA’s rules match some of what Georgia is already doing, said Cown. But there’s a good amount Georgia’s not doing yet, including groundwater monitoring. The EPA is also requiring public reporting of data about coal ash ponds and groundwater.

Access to that information could ease some of the concerns for people who live near coal ash ponds, such as communities near Plant Scherer in Juliette, Georgia. Sherer is the largest coal plant in the country, and some who live around the plant are worried about groundwater contamination from the coal ash pond there.