EPA issues rules on coal ash to regulate impoundments, preserve recycling

Six years after a major coal ash impoundment failure at the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) Kingston power plant, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has issued the first national regulations on safe disposal of coal combustion residue.

In early reactions, some coal interests said they were happy that the rule stopped short of regulating coal ash as a “hazardous waste.”

EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said in a news release that the rules are designed to both prevent catastrophic failures like the one in Tennessee and set up safeguards to prevent groundwater contamination and air emissions from coal ash.

“EPA is taking action to protect our communities from the risk of mismanaged coal ash disposal units, and putting in place safeguards to help prevent the next catastrophic coal ash impoundment failure, which can cost millions for local businesses, communities and states,” McCarthy said.

“These strong safeguards will protect drinking water from contamination, air from coal ash dust, and our communities from structural failures, while providing facilities a practical approach for implementation,” McCarthy added.

EPA has been involved in a multi-year effort to help ensure the safety of the nation’s coal ash disposal facilities, including assessing more than 500 facilities across the country. Improperly constructed or managed coal ash disposal units have been linked to nearly 160 cases of harm to surface or ground water or to the air.

EPA evaluated more than 450,000 comments on the proposed rule, testimony from eight public hearings, and information gathered from three notices soliciting comment on new data and analyses.

The EPA stipulates that coal ash impoundments and landfills that fail to meet engineering and structural standards will longer receive coal ash. EPA will also require regular inspections on the safety of the surface impoundments.

EPA also says that new surface impoundments and landfills cannot be built in sensitive areas like wetlands and earthquake zones. The rule also calls for use of fugitive dust controls to reduce windblown coal ash dust.

The EPA rule requires liner barriers for new units and proper closure of surface impoundments and landfills that will no longer receive coal combustion residues.

EPA seeks to increase clarity, transparency on coal ash

“Implementation of these technical requirements will be reported through comprehensive and regular disclosure to states, and communities to enable them to monitor and oversee these requirements,” EPA said. The rule requires that power plant owners and operators provide detailed information to citizens and states to fully understand how their communities may be affected, EPA said

The new rule also requires various reporting and recordkeeping requirements, as well as the requirement for each facility to post specific information to a publicly-accessible website.

“This final rule also supports the responsible recycling of coal ash by distinguishing safe, beneficial use from disposal. In 2012, almost 40 percent of all coal ash produced was recycled (beneficially used), rather than disposed,” EPA said.

“Beneficial use of coal ash can produce positive environmental, economic and performance benefits such as reduced use of virgin resources, lower greenhouse gas emissions, reduced cost of coal ash disposal, and improved strength and durability of materials,” EPA said.

Preserving coal ash recycling has been a major concern for the American Coal Ash Association (ACAA).

The EPA rule reaffirms EPA’s Bevill determination for beneficial used, and provides a definition of beneficial use to distinguish between beneficial use and disposal. “This rule does not affect beneficial use applications started before the effective date of the rule; only applications to be started after the effective date of the rule need to determine if they comply with the criteria contained in the final rule distinguishing between beneficial use and disposal,” according to an EPA fact sheet.

Various parties weigh in on EPA rule

ACAA Executive Director Thomas Adams said he was glad that EPA will regulate coal ash disposal as a “non-hazardous” material.

“The regulatory uncertainty that has impeded the beneficial use of coal ash for half a decade has finally come to an end,” Adams said. “EPA’s final decision to regulate coal ash as a ‘non-hazardous’ material puts science ahead of politics and clears the way for beneficial use of ash to begin growing again – thereby keeping ash out of landfills and disposal ponds in the first place,” he added.

ACAA has said the beneficial use of coal ash has been harmed by regulatory uncertainty surrounding the rulemaking.

Adams said he is also encouraged by EPA recently resuming positive statements about the beneficial use of coal ash, which remains exempt from regulation. In February 2014, EPA published an exhaustive evaluation of the use of fly ash in concrete and synthetic gypsum in wallboard, concluding that both applications are safe and should be encouraged, Adams said.

“EPA’s final decision to regulate coal ash disposal as a non-hazardous material is consistent with science and previous EPA regulatory determinations dating to the 1980s,” said Headwaters (NYSE:HW) Chairman and CEO Kirk Benson. “Beneficial use of coal ash remains exempt from regulation and is increasingly viewed as a preferred alternative to disposal,” Benson said.

The Headwaters company describes itself as the nation’s largest manager and marketer of coal combustion products.

“While EPA and the Obama Administration have taken a modest first step by introducing some protections on the disposal of coal ash, they do not go far enough to protect families from this toxic pollution,” said Glen Besa, who is director of the Virginia Sierra Club. Besa cited the Duke Energy (NYSE:DUK) Dan River coal ash spill in Virginia and North Carolina and said many states have weak coal ash rules that are poorly enforced.

“While there are some new tools for addressing our nation’s coal ash problem in these new federal protections, there are glaring flaws in the EPA’s approach,” said the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) Senior Attorney Frank Holleman.

“Most problematically, the absence of federal oversight and enforcement means that any meaningful protective action will continue to fall to our states and local communities,” Holleman said.

“Another major omission is the rule’s failure to clearly require a cleanup of existing and outdated coal ash lagoons. EPA has created a long and uncertain path for addressing these sites when clearly we need to take action immediately,” said SELC’s Holleman. 

About Wayne Barber 4201 Articles
Wayne Barber, Chief Analyst for the GenerationHub, has been covering power generation, energy and natural resources issues at national publications for more than 20 years. Prior to joining PennWell he was editor of Generation Markets Week at SNL Financial for nine years. He has also worked as a business journalist at both McGraw-Hill and Financial Times Energy. Wayne also worked as a newspaper reporter for several years. During his career has visited nuclear reactors and coal mines as well as coal and natural gas power plants. Wayne can be reached at wayneb@pennwell.com.