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 kw...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.