The Environmental Protection Agency on Friday announced the first-ever national standards regulating the disposal of coal ash – a byproduct of electric power generation – like everyday trash. The much-anticipated announcement comes under court order in a lawsuit filed against the agency by environmental groups following years of regulatory delay.
Speaking to reporters in a press call, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy touted the agency’s rule as a “milestone” for communities living in the shadows of 1,425 coal ash ponds and landfills in 37 states throughout the nation. The new federal requirements for coal ash dump sites aim to prevent catastrophic spills caused by structural failures, McCarthy said, as well as more insidious pollution caused by the ash’s leaching.
“We don’t just worry about large-scale failures,” the administrator said. “We worry about all the cases” of coal ash damage. Calling the final rule “a smart, very large step forward,” she explained that “it will help prevent the pollution of air and water and protect our public health.”
Environmentalists – who’d hoped the waste, which contains harmful metals such as arsenic and lead, would be classified as hazardous – were less than enthusiastic about the rule.
“We feel EPA had a golden opportunity and a clear mandate,” said Lisa Evans, a senior attorney at the nonprofit law firm Earthjustice who handled the coal ash litigation against the EPA. “They squandered it.”
One of the nation’s largest refuse streams at 136 million tons a year, coal ash has fouled water supplies, endangered public health and threatened communities across the country. The EPA itself has recognized as many as 160 “damage” cases in which coal ash from ponds, landfills and other dumpsites have contaminated nearby aquifers, streams, rivers and lakes or tainted the air.
In a series of stories, the Center for Public Integrity highlighted the environmental and human health consequences of coal ash.
Under the EPA’s final rule, new and existing ash ponds and landfills will face requirements that dozens of states nationwide have failed to put in place on their own — routine groundwater monitoring, for instance, and protective liners for all new units. The measure calls for regular safety inspections at the nation’s 1,070 ash ponds, which can rupture and spill tens of thousands of tons of coal ash into the environment; earlier this year, in fact, Duke Energy’s coal ash pond spewed 39,000 tons of waste into the Dan River in North Carolina.
Other requirements call for the closure of ash ponds and landfills that fail to meet structural standards, and that will no longer receive coal ash. They would also shutter any unlined ash pond that had already contaminated groundwater beyond federal safety standards.