Tuesday, June 1, 2010

What's next for coal ash?

Posted By on Tue, Jun 1, 2010 at 11:43 AM

Here's a snippet from a special Facing South investigation by Sue Sturgis.

NOTE: This is the final installment in Facing South's weeklong investigation into the growing national problem of coal ash waste and the looming battle over regulation. To read earlier installments in the series, visit here.

What's in the EPA's new rules?

According to an analysis of the proposed regulations by environmental groups, both approaches would impose dam safety requirements on coal ash impoundments in an effort to prevent another disastrous collapse like the one at TVA's Kingston plant in eastern Tennessee.

Both proposals would also require the installation of composite liners -- multilayered liners like those now required at municipal waste landfills -- at new and existing surface impoundments as well as at new dry coal ash landfills in order to prevent groundwater contamination.

The stricter Subtitle C version of the rule would effectively phase out the construction of new coal ash impoundments. However, the less strict alternative under Subtitle D would also likely lead to their phase-out because of the requirement that they be retrofitted with liners -- a costly prospect that many utilities would likely seek to avoid.

Both proposals leave some of the status quo intact: For example, they would continue to allow coal ash to be recycled into concrete and other products. However, the proposed rules draw a distinction between such generally beneficial reuses and other reuses like large-scale structural fills that essentially constitute disposal operations.

Neither proposal addresses the use of coal ash for filling mines; the EPA is leaving regulation of that up to the Department of Interior's Office of Surface Mining. Nor do they address the use of coal ash on agricultural crops, which is currently under study by EPA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, with those findings set for release in 2012. And neither proposal regulates the 3 million to 6 million tons of coal ash generated each year by non-utilities like factories with coal-fired boilers.

But the differences between the two alternatives are significant. For environmentalists, the stricter proposal's acknowledgment that coal ash should be treated like other hazardous waste is a breakthrough.

"Their inclusion of an option to regulate coal ash as hazardous waste is an important first step," said Earthjustice Executive Director Trip Van Noppen. "The next important step will be to maintain this position in the face of inevitably misguided claims by polluters that the sky will fall under this new regulatory environment."

One of the most fundamental differences between the two approaches is enforcement. While the stricter RCRA Subtitle C would give EPA clear authority to enforce the law, under Subtitle D EPA would have the power only to set guidelines, leaving oversight to the states and enforcement to citizen lawsuits.

In addition, Subtitle C would require states to issue solid waste permits for coal ash disposal sites while Subtitle D does not. Permits are not only critical enforcement tools -- they're also the only avenues for meaningful public involvement when it comes to where these facilities are located and how they're operated.

Electric utilities and other interests opposed to the stricter rules say their biggest reservation is cost. The EPA estimates that the stricter regulations would cost the entire industry $1.5 billion a year, while the less strict ones would cost about $600 million. To put that cost in perspective, though, consider that the profits earned last year alone just by North Carolina-based Duke Energy were $1.1 billion.

The reason for the cost difference is that EPA assumes less compliance under the latter approach -- which environmentalists say is precisely why the tougher rules are needed.

"Polluters will claim EPA's plan to designate coal ash as hazardous waste will come with a cost to industry as they conveniently ignore the costs to public health of dumping unregulated coal ash into ponds and landfills," said an alliance of environmental groups calling for the tougher rule.

'I'd like to hear from citizens'

Right now, the public can find the unofficial, pre-publication version of the EPA's proposed rules on the agency's website. Once the rules are published officially in the Federal Register, the clock begins ticking on the 90-day comment period.*

EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said her agency would also hold public hearings on the proposed rule, though none have been announced yet.

At the close of the 90-day comment period, EPA will evaluate what it expects to be an extensive set of comments and then make a decision. The agency has not said how long that might take.

Read the rest of this installment here.

If you'd like to learn more about two of the high-hazard coal ash ponds affecting Charlotte-Mecklenburg's drinking water, join me at Type/Face June 10. Click here for more details.

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