Coal-Ash Rule Draws Environmentalist Complaints After Spills

(Bloomberg) — 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


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.

To contact the reporter on this story:

Mark Drajem in Washington at

To contact the editors responsible for this story:

Jon Morgan at

Steve Geimann, Larry Liebert

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