The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has proposed amendments to the federal 2015 Coal Ash Rule that critics say would remove certain safeguards if the ash is dumped or spread for a "beneficial use," such as fill. During a daylong virtual public hearing on October 10, various environmental groups and concerned citizens spoke out against the proposed changes to the regulations governing the disposal of coal combustion residuals (CCR), commonly known as coal ash.
EPA’s proposal is the first of three planned revisions to address matters raised in litigation, legislation, petitions for reconsideration and rule implementation, noted EPA during the October 10 hearing.
The proposal addresses two issues remanded back to EPA for action. EPA is proposing a modification to one of the criteria used to determine if coal ash is being beneficially used or would be considered disposal. Currently, when 12,400 tons or more of unencapsulated coal ash will be placed on the land in non-roadway applications, the user must perform an environmental demonstration. EPA is proposing to replace the numerical threshold for triggering an environmental demonstration with location-based criteria (e.g., placement in an unstable area, wetland, floodplain, fault area or seismic zone) derived from the existing requirements in the 2015 final rule.
The second proposed change is to the requirements for managing piles of coal ash. Currently, there are different requirements for piles depending on whether the pile is onsite at an electric utility, for example, or offsite for beneficial use. The proposal would establish a single approach, which would apply to all temporary placement of unencapsulated coal ash on the land, regardless of whether a pile is onsite or offsite, and regardless of whether the coal ash in the pile is destined for beneficial use or disposal.
Three additional changes are also being proposed:
- Revisions to the annual groundwater monitoring and corrective action report requirements to make the data “easier to understand and evaluate,” including a requirement to summarize the results in an executive summary.
- Establishment of an alternative groundwater protection standard for boron using the same methodology used for other coal ash constituents, which would be finalized if boron is added to the list of constituents for assessment monitoring.
- Revisions to the coal ash website requirements to ensure that relevant facility information required by the regulations is immediately available to the public.
A recently released Duke University study reports that allowing coal ash to be spread on soil or stored in unlined pits and landfills will raise the risk that several toxic elements could leach out of the coal ash and contaminate nearby water supplies across the U.S.
Avner Vengosh, professor of geochemistry and water quality at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment, led Duke’s study and testified before the EPA during the agency’s first public hearing on the matter on October 2.
“Based on my review of the U.S. EPA proposal for amendments of the federal coal ash regulations, and on my knowledge and experience, it is my opinion that the proposed amendments would considerably weaken the existing federal regulations and will result in higher risks to water resources and human health,” said Vengosh in his testimony. “The reduction of the environmental protection and safeguards that were established as part of the federal 2015 Coal Ash Rule would severely exacerbate the already identified environmental effects associated with coal ash storage and disposal.”
“Our experiments suggest that when coal ash interacts with water—as it will if it is spread on soil or buried in soil without protective liners—there is extensive mobilization of arsenic, selenium and chromium, in the form of highly toxic hexavalent chromium,” added Vengosh.
During the October 10 virtual public hearing, various environmental groups and concerned citizens spoke out against the proposed changes to EPA’s CCR rule.
Lila Holzman, energy program manager for environmental advocacy group As You Sow, said the proposed changes represent a weakening of regulations and, therefore, rejected EPA’s amendments.
“Given that hazardous chemicals are found in coal ash residual combustion, the material waste poses risk to the air, water, ecosystems and livelihoods,” said Holzman. “Companies face liability and reputational risks that can result in significant cleanup costs if not addressed early on. The costs associated with such risky practices negatively impact shareholders’ value and the health of our communities. Comprehensive and common-sense national standards are needed to mitigate this industrywide problem.”
She added that various companies have been able to implement best practices including liners and other controls that appropriately mitigate CCR risk.
“Federal rules are needed to make sure the entire industry is operating under best practices,” noted Holzman. “EPA’s CCR regulations can help prevent the entire industry and the reputation of utilities from being dragged down by the worst actors. The proposed changes put in jeopardy anything close to adequate risk strategy. I am here today to emphasize that this misguided rollback by the Trump EPA is bad for the bottom line.”
During EPA’s initial public hearing, American Coal Ash Association (ACAA) representatives testified that the agency's proposal for revising coal ash regulations “will erect significant barriers to safely recycling coal ash.”
"EPA's proposals related to the definition of coal ash beneficial use are the opposite of a regulatory rollback," said Thomas H. Adams, ACAA executive director, in a statement released before the October 2 hearing. "Without any damage cases or scientific analysis to justify its actions, the agency is seeking to impose burdensome new restrictions that will cause millions more tons of material to be disposed rather than be used in ways that safely conserve natural resources and energy."
On October 10, Adams told Waste360 that “those comments will form the basis for our more extensive comments to the public record next week.”