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EPA Would Like to Give States More Flexibility with Coal Ash Disposal

Disposing of coal combustion residuals remains top of mind for states and utilities. But the current Environmental Protection Agency would like to give the states more flexibility when it comes to dealing with where to put that coal ash.

“EPA continues to support the environmentally sound recycling of coal ash,” said EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, who sent letters to the states asking for their “guidance.” Because coal is regulated as a solid waste — and not a hazardous waste — it can be recycled, which prevents some of it from going in landfills.

“Through the authority granted by Congress in the WIIN Act, EPA is issuing this guidance to promote the swift submission and review of state permit programs, make state and federal management of coal ash more consistent, and place enforcement in the hands of state regulators – those who best know the needs of local communities,” he added, in a statement.

Most coal ash is buried in landfills, although those sites must keep a safe distance from surface and groundwater supplies. For coal ash buried on utility grounds, the ponds need to be properly lined to keep the waste from bleeding out.

While Pruitt said that any changes would give the states more flexibility to comply, critics maintain any reforms would weaken the federal government’s role. Many landfills, for example, need oversight to protect local populations who are often poor.

Coal power plants produce about 140 million tons of coal ash a year, at roughly 1,100 sites in 37 states. The waste contains arsenic, mercury and selenium that is harmful to human health and the environment.

Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment did a study that found 21 unlined disposal sites had leaks in five southeastern states. “In all the investigated sites, we saw evidence of leaking,” said Avner Vengosh, a professor of geochemistry and water quality. “Some of the impacted water had high levels of contaminants.”

All this is coming nearly a decade after the coal ash spill at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Kingston facility near Knoxville, Tenn. On December 22, 2008, a dam had burst, releasing 5.4 million cubic yards of coal ash into the local communities there. Duke Energy also had a coal ash spill that released 100,000 cubic yards of waste into the nearby Dan River. The river turned completely grey.

Utilities with major coal ash sites include American Electric Power Co., First Energy Corp., NRG Energy Inc., Southern Co. and Scana Corp.‘s Santee Cooper, which has said that it recycles as much as 90 percent of its coal ash in good economic times.

Utilities are responding by converting wet ash to dry ash and then burying it lined pools. Existing sites, though, remain a sticking point, with companies saying that some sites are perfectly safe and that moving the ash would be problematic. Environmentalists are pushing harder to uproot existing sites so that the coal ash could go in lined pools.

With the retirement of more and more coal plants, the issue will only get more intense. The EPA regulates those sites but EPA Administrator Pruitt wants to give the states more say, which he feels are closer to local communities.

Duke Energy, for example, settled a lawsuit filed by the state of North Carolina over the illicit leakage of coal ash that led to groundwater contamination. It must now contend with suits filed by private parties. Meantime, Charlotte Business Journal reports that the utility has spent more than $725 million cleaning and excavating its coal ash ponds — costs it would like to recover from its customers.

According to the journal, Duke says that closing its current coal ash basins should be considered a routine cost of power generation and therefore the company should be permitted to pass along this cost. Separately, Duke and its shareholders paid the full cost to clean up the coal ash spill at the Dan River with none of it being borne by customers. 

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