EPA Regulating Coal Ash

This week the EPA proposed national regulations to govern the safe management and disposal of coal ash from coal-fired power plants. In 2008, an impoundment full of waste coal ash from the Tennessee Valley Authority ruptured. The resulting 1.1 billion gallon spill caused major environmental damage to the surrounding land and water, displaced residents and cost the government hundreds of millions of dollars to clean up. Subsequent EPA risk assessments show that coal ash can make its way into groundwater and drinking water sources.

Photo Credit: Reverend Andy A coal ash spill cleanup in Tennessee.
A coal ash spill cleanup in Tennessee.

β€œWe’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.” — Lisa P. Jackson, EPA Administrator

The aim of the new regulations is to institute stronger oversight over coal ash management and promote β€œbeneficial uses,” or recycling, of coal ash. The EPA proposal is open for comment from the general public. There are two separate approaches under the Resource Recovery and Conservation Act (RCRA): Subtitle C and Subtitle D. You have to love the very government-style names.

Subtitle C proposes a comprehensive program of federally enforceable requirements for waste management and disposal. Subtitle D proposes that the EPA set performance standards for waste management facilities and leaves enforcement to citizen suits. For a detailed look at the options, view a comparison chart on the EPA website. According to their website, the EPA will be proposing Subtitle D based on their authority.

β€œ[The] EPA supports the legitimate beneficial use of coal combustion residuals. Environmentally sound beneficial uses of ash conserve resources, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, lessen the need for waste disposal units, and provide significant domestic economic benefits. This proposal will clearly differentiate these uses from coal ash disposal and assure that safe beneficial uses are not restricted and in fact are encouraged.” — Mathy Stanislaus, assistant administrator for EPA Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response

According to their press release, the β€œEPA 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 extends to the end of July.

Written by Scott James

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