EPA says it won't regulate coal ash as hazardous waste
Operators of coal-fired electricity plants beaten up by increased regulations on air emissions and competition from other power sources caught a break in the latest federal rules on waste.
The Environmental Protection Agency on Friday said it would not regulate the coal ash that power plants generate as hazardous waste in its first rules covering the byproduct, leaving open the door to continued recycling of the ash.
The rules set standards for monitoring and testing of ash, impoundments that hold it, and cleanup when they fail. The non-hazardous designation leaves enforcement to states.
“It does what we hoped to accomplish ... in a very aggressive but reasonable and pragmatic way,” said EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy.
Industry groups such as the Washington-based Utility Solid Waste Activities Group said they were pleased with their initial reading of the rules, despite concern that the EPA could change the designation.
“USWAG supports several key objectives of the final rule, including ensuring the structural stability of coal ash ponds and addressing groundwater contamination from coal combustion residuals disposal units,” said the group's executive director, Jim Roewer. “USWAG also appreciates EPA's recognition of and support for the many beneficial uses of recycling coal ash.”
Environmental groups, some of which sued state governments and the EPA to force action, said the agency relied too much on industry feedback.
“We're not surprised they're not regulating it as a hazardous waste,” said Eric Schaeffer, executive director of the Environmental Integrity Project in Washington. He noted the rule “takes some long overdue steps to establish minimum national groundwater monitoring and cleanup standards.”
FirstEnergy Corp., the Akron company that operates Pennsylvania's largest coal-fired plant, Bruce Mansfield in Beaver County, as well as several high-profile coal ash dumps, was reviewing the rules but expressed satisfaction with the waste designation.
“We do believe that the non-hazardous designation is appropriate. It allows for the materials to be safely recycled,” said company spokeswoman Stephanie Walton.
The company plans to build a $200 million system at Bruce Mansfield to treat coal ash so it can safely be used in wallboard, cement, road treatments and as a fill for abandoned mines. It must build the plant to replace its Little Blue Run impoundment in Greene Township, Beaver County, under a state Department of Environmental Protection order.
Coal ash can contain metals and pollutants that taint groundwater, which has happened at Little Blue Run.
The DEP regulates coal ash disposal and issues permits under its residual waste program. It permits what it calls “beneficial use” of recycled ash.
Officials there were unavailable to discuss its programs. Spokeswoman Amanda Witman said the department “is actively reviewing this new rule to determine how it will impact Pennsylvania's regulated community.”
Walton said the federal rules will not replace state regulations, which she called strict in Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio.
“That's baloney,” said Schaeffer, who complained about inconsistent testing and reporting standards and a lack of easy access to state data.
The rule requires companies to perform standardized testing and reporting of results concerning structural integrity of holding ponds and discharges into waterways. It outlines steps for closure of certain holding ponds built in wetlands or geologically active areas.
“Monitoring will be more complete and data has to be posted online,” Schaeffer said.
Coal-fired plants supply about 40 percent of electricity nationally, a share that dwindled in recent years as facilities closed under financial and regulatory pressures. Industry advocates say another set of EPA rules undergoing review, which limit carbon dioxide emissions in an attempt to limit climate change, would force many more plants out of commission.
The coal ash rule was prompted by a December 2008 spill at the Tennessee Valley Authority's power plant in Kingston, Tenn., that flooded more than 300 acres and polluted the Emory and Clinch rivers. In February, the collapse of a drainage pipe at the Duke Energy plant in Eden, N.C., triggered a spill that coated 70 miles of the Dan River in sludge.
David Conti is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-388-5802 or email@example.com.