Coal-Ash Rule Draws Environmentalist Complaints After Spills

The Obama administration issued the first rules for coal ash at power plants, drawing complaints from environmentalists for abandoning a proposal to deem it hazardous and to deal with risks at old, abandoned sites.

The rule from the Environmental Protection Agency today follows contamination by coal ash -- the nation’s second-largest industrial waste after mining material -- at two sites in the southeast. Environmental advocates said that the rules may not do much to prevent the next pollution catastrophe.

“Every little bit is helpful, but this was a baby step,” said Pete Harrison, a lawyer for Waterkeeper Alliance, a group that pushes for protection of rivers and lakes. “We weren’t prepared for how flimsy this rule would be.”

The EPA’s rule caps almost three decades of fighting by industry to fend off attempts to control the disposal of ash left after coal is burned for power. Coal ash, which can contain arsenic, lead, mercury and selenium, is collected in more than 1,000 ponds or dry landfills across the nation. Each year, the U.S. generates 110 million tons of coal ash.

The EPA vowed to issue a rule after a devastating 2008 spill at a Tennessee Valley Authority sludge pond in Kingston, Tennessee, flooded 300 acres (121 hectares), destroying homes and contaminating tributaries of the Tennessee River.

Duke Spill

On Feb. 2, a Duke Energy Corp. coal-ash pond in North Carolina that has been closed sprung a leak and dumped an estimated 39,000 tons of waste into the Dan River, which snakes between North Carolina and Virginia. Duke says it has spent about $20 million cleaning up that spill.

In its proposal, the agency said it’s requiring owners to review the integrity of waste structures, in order to prevent the kind of rupture that struck Kingston. They also must monitor the water quality nearby. All the information must be posted online to give residents the ability to seek changes.

“That will open the utility up to liability and allow public citizens to sue,” EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said today.

In 2010, the EPA offered two approaches for coal ash: classifying it as hazardous, giving the agency authority over permits and enforcement, and requiring liners for sludge ponds; or setting standards, and leaving enforcement to the states.

Recycling Ash

Companies that turn the ash into materials used to make cement, wallboard or other construction materials complained that a hazardous classification would kill recycling. The decision today is a boon to that industry. It also means that federal regulators won’t directly enforce the rule.

Utility industry representatives said the EPA didn’t rule out ever labeling the coal ash as hazardous, and that’s a risk for their industry.

“The possibility of hazardous waste regulation will perpetuate the regulatory uncertainty that undermines the many beneficial uses of recycling coal ash,” said Jim Roewer, executive director of the Utility Solid Waste Activities Group.

The EPA also declined to seek to close all coal ponds, which are more likely to leak or have a dam wall burst. Instead, only those ponds with leaks or engineering problems will be forced to shut, McCarthy said.

EPA Limitations

Environmentalists were pushing EPA to force companies either to line their ponds or disband the use of such wet disposal. They also wanted EPA to tackle the problem of waste pits that no longer have more waste being added to them. EPA said it didn’t have the authority to regulate most of those.

“While EPA’s coal-ash rule takes some long overdue steps to establish minimum national groundwater monitoring and cleanup standards, it relies too heavily on the industry to police itself,” Eric Schaeffer, executive director of the Environmental Integrity Project, said in a statement.

In a separate action, the Interior Department issued a plan that would effectively increase the payments that coal producers must make from mining on public land. The change follows analyses from outside groups saying mining companies weren’t being charged market rates for the public resources.

“Coal produced on public lands is an important part of our domestic energy portfolio, but we have an obligation –- and we are fully committed –- to ensure that the American taxpayer receives a fair return for the production of domestic energy resources,” Mike Connor, deputy secretary, said in a statement.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.