EPA still undecided on coal-ash regulations
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- More than 16 months after a huge coal-ash spill in eastern Tennessee, the Obama administration said Tuesday it has still not settled on a proposal to better regulate the toxic byproducts of coal-fired power plants.
Instead, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency outlined two possible paths -- both known to environmental groups and the industry for years -- and said it is asking for more public comment on which way to go.
EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson said her agency's announcement is "the beginning of a national dialogue," while also acknowledging, "there has been lots of discussion already."
Both options under consideration by EPA would provide for the first national requirement that new landfills handling coal ash have liners and groundwater monitoring to prevent leaching of toxic chemicals from the ash into nearby water supplies.
EPA said one path would be to fully regulate coal ash as a hazardous waste under one section of the federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. This would mean nationwide EPA regulations, oversight and enforcement.
The other path, EPA said, would be to regulate coal ash under a separate section of RCRA. Under this approach, EPA could set recommended guidelines, but actual regulation of coal-ash handling and disposal would be left mostly up to states.
During a conference call with reporters, Jackson described the two paths as "varying approaches to enforcement and oversight," but added, "both proposals reflect a major step forward on the national level."
The EPA proposals, once formally published in the Federal Register, would be subject to a 90-day public comment period.
Coal-fired power plants generate more than 130 million tons of various ash wastes every year. The numbers have been increasing as more plants install scrubbers and other equipment that control air pollution, but shift the toxic leftovers from burning coal into ash and other wastes. By 2015, the annual amount of coal ash generated at U.S. plants is expected to increase to 175 million tons, a jump of more than a third.
But no single national program sets up a concrete regulatory plan for the handling of these "coal combustion wastes." Instead, the nation relies on a patchwork of state programs that vary in terms of their standards and their level of enforcement.
The issue simmered for years, with little focus from political leaders, until December 2008, when a Tennessee Valley Authority coal-ash impoundment failed in eastern Tennessee. More than a billion gallons of coal ash -- containing an estimated 2.9 million pounds of toxic pollutants -- poured into nearby streams, fields and homes. The spill covered more than 300 acres and made three homes uninhabitable. It damaged 23 other homes, along with roads, rail lines and utilities. TVA estimated the cleanup would cost between $933 million and $1.2 billion and take two to three years to complete.
The TVA disaster brought new calls for tougher regulations, but in recent months the EPA's proposal has been tied up at the White House Office of Management and Budget, and under fire from industry and coalfield political leaders, including Gov. Joe Manchin.
A power company group calling itself the Utility Solid Waste Activities Group said it "was pleased that EPA is keeping an open mind" and that regulation of coal ash as "a non-hazardous waste" would be the best approach.
Lisa Evans, a coal-ash expert with the group Earthjustice, also praised EPA's announcement as "certainly a step forward," but said science and the law dictate the tougher regulatory approach.
"Coal ash is hazardous, and only hazardous-waste regulations can protect communities and safeguard our drinking water," Evans said. "EPA has proposed that option and should be commended for this action."
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-1702.