EPA Will Not Declare Coal Ash A Hazardous Waste

CREDIT: AP Photo/Gerry Broome

In this Feb. 5, 2014 photo, Jenny Edwards, program manager for Rockingham County with the Dan River Basin Association, scoops coal ash from the banks of the Dan River.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Friday issued its first-ever regulations on coal ash, a toxic byproduct of burning coal for power. But to environmentalists’ chagrin, the agency declined to designate the substance as a hazardous waste.

Instead, coal ash will be regulated similarly to household garbage. EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy assured reporters on Friday that designating coal ash as solid waste, rather than hazardous waste, would be sufficient to prevent catastrophic spills of coal ash from the ponds the substance is often stored in, and to prevent it from leaching into groundwater, as it has in the past.

“I’m very proud that the EPA is moving this over the finish line,” McCarthy said. “[The rule] is a common sense path forward that protects public health and the environment.”

Coal ash — which often contains chemicals like arsenic, chromium, mercury, and lead — is the second-largest form of waste generated in the United States. After producing it, coal companies sometimes dispose of it by dumping it into ditches, and filling those ditches with water. Those ditches, called coal ash ponds or lagoons, are often unlined, meaning the coal ash comes in direct contact with the environment. It has, until now, never been federally regulated.

Environmentalists have long been pushing for a strong rule, but they were less than enthused about the direction EPA decided to take with it on Friday. “There is simply no excuse for EPA’s dangerously weak coal ash rule, which treats toxic waste loaded with carcinogens like household garbage,” Josh Nelson, campaign manager at CREDO Action, said in a statement.

Under the new rule, all new coal ash pits must be lined. In addition, the hundreds of old, unlined pits must be immediately cleaned up — but only if they are found to be actively polluting groundwater, and only if they are attached to active power plants. That’s a problem for environmentalists, because hundreds of old, decrepit coal ash ponds are attached to coal plants that are no longer producing power. The EPA says it does not have legal authority to regulate those.

Companies will also now be required to perform regular inspections of the safety of their coal ash ponds, monitor their groundwater, and share the results of those inspections publicly. But the rule does not allow for any federal enforcement, instead leaving states and citizen lawsuits to ensure that companies are meeting those requirements.

“This [rule] is a step in the right direction I suppose, but it simply was not substantial enough to eliminate the risks that are going to continue for who knows how long,” Peter Harrison, an attorney for Waterkeeper Alliance, told ThinkProgress shortly after the rule was announced. “I fear that with this rule, it’s only a matter of time until another one of these huge spills occur.”

The rule was issued in response to a number of high-profile disasters surrounding coal ash. In February, the massive Dan River spill saw 82,000 tons of coal ash spilled into a major North Carolina waterway. And in 2008, the historic Tennessee Valley Authority coal ash spill saw 5.4 million cubic yards of coal ash make its way into the Emory and Clinch rivers, smothering about 300 acres of land.

More on the EPA’s new rule can be found here.