EPA Admin: Coal ash considered as garbage, not hazardous waste

Coal Ash

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Gina McCarthy announced the agency will now consider coal ash on the same level as household waste as opposed to hazardous waste. Household garbage and coal ash are both listed in the solid waste category, a stretch from the hazardous waste classification.

The news was announced Dec. 19 during a press conference, where McCarthy was joined with EPA Assistant Administrator for the Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response, Mathy Stanislaus.

“It does what we hoped to accomplish ... in a very aggressive but reasonable and pragmatic way,” McCarthy said.

The announcement marks the first national regulations for the safe disposal of coal ash from coal-fired power plants. According to the EPA, the final rule protects communities from coal ash impoundment failures and establishes safeguards to prevent groundwater contamination and air emissions from coal ash disposal.

The ruling has brought in mixed feelings from industry companies and agencies. Edison Electric Institute (EEI) said they were pleased with the ruling but still have concerns.

“While we are still reviewing the final rule in detail, EPA made the proper determination that coal ash should be regulated as a non-hazardous waste in a way that will protect human health and the environment,"  EEI said. "However, we still have concerns with the self-implementing nature of the rule and the way in which EPA has left the door open to one day regulate coal ash as a hazardous waste, creating additional uncertainty for electric utilities. These regulations will add to the challenges the electric power industry faces in providing reliable, affordable and increasingly clean electricity to power the U.S. economy and to enhance the daily lives of all Americans."

Environmentalists had hoped for coal ash to be classified as hazardous waste, arguing coal ash had tainted waters. Discussions on coal ash handling was sparked in 2008, after the Tennessee Valley Authority's Kingston Fossil Plant leaked 5.4 million cubic yards of coal ash. The discussion gained more attention earlier this year after Duke Energy's Dan River Steam Station spilled 39,000 tons of coal into the Dan River.

 "What we have been looking for is for coal ash to be treated like the hazardous waste it is," said Michael Brune, head of the Sierra Club. "It should be treated as such. If it is not, that shows the influence and pressure of the coal industry.”

However, the EPA ended the six-year debate by determining that coal ash sites do no support a hazardous classification. Under the regulation, the EPA will increase monitoring for leaks and control blowing dust, and will require companies to make test results public. Additionally, the final rule calls for closing waste sites that are structurally deficient or tainting waterways.

"While the rule may not be as bad as some had feared, it will make states and utility companies vulnerable to new regulatory costs and expensive litigation," Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., and Rep. Shelley Capito, R-W.Va., said in a joint statement. "States have been paving the way on properly disposing and recycling coal ash, and in the new Congress, we will give states an opportunity to show they are not in need of another big government intervention."

Although this rule was announced today, the agency is leaving time to reverse the decision.

“While EPA has appropriately determined to regulate coal ash as a non-hazardous waste, we are disappointed with the Agency’s suggestion that it is still evaluating whether to reverse this determination and regulate coal ash as a hazardous waste at some point in the future,” said Utility Solid Waste Activities Group (USWAG) Executive Director Jim Roewer. "Such a reversal would strand important strategic and capital investments made by utilities to comply with the Subtitle D rules, and the possibility of hazardous waste regulation will perpetuate the regulatory uncertainty that undermines the many beneficial uses of recycling coal ash."

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