WASHINGTON (AP) - Environmentalists and industry experts widely expect the first federal standards for the waste generated from coal burned for electricity to treat the ash like household garbage, rather than a hazardous material.
The Obama administration is under court order to unveil the rule Friday, ending a six-year effort that began after a massive spill at a Tennessee power plant in 2008. Since then, the Environmental Protection Agency has documented coal ash waste sites tainting hundreds of waterways and underground aquifers in numerous states with heavy metals and other toxic contaminants.
Coal ash has been piling up in ponds and landfill sites at power plants for years, an unintended consequence of the EPA's push to scrub air pollutants from smokestacks. In volume, it ranks only behind household trash in quantity, and it is expected to grow as the EPA controls pollutants like heat-trapping carbon dioxide and mercury and other toxic air pollutants from the nation's coal fleet. On the upside, a switch from coal to natural gas-fired power plants in recent years has generated less ash.
Environmental groups had wanted the coal ash to be classified as hazardous, pointing to an assessment by the agency last year that found more than 132 cases in which coal-fired power plant waste damaged rivers, streams and lakes, and 123 where it has tainted underground water sources, in many cases legally. A hazardous classification would have put the federal government in charge of enforcement, which has been uneven across states which have varying degrees of regulation.
"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."
That industry, and companies that recycle coal ash, pushed back, citing costs and a damping effect on the recycling market. Around 40 percent of coal ash is reused.
Classifying coal ash as solid waste leaves it up to citizens and states to ensure standards are met.
"This argument has been over who gets to enforce the rules," Thomas H. Adams, the executive director of the American Coal Ash Association, a group representing coal ash recyclers, said at an event in Washington earlier this week.
Adams said that despite the regulation, he still preferred Congress to pass legislation to deal with the problem. A bill that passed the Republican-controlled House in 2013 would have allowed the EPA to set a minimum federal standard for coal ash, but leave states in the driver's seat. The White House, in its statement on the bill, said the administration hopes to work with Congress on legislation setting standards for managing coal ash while encouraging the beneficial uses of the material.
Republicans on Thursday characterized it as another attempt by the Obama administration to target coal-fired power as part of a broader climate agenda: The administration has proposed or issued regulations to reduce heat-trapping carbon pollution, mercury and air toxic pollution; and the number of fish that may be trapped in cooling water intake systems.
"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."
In 2010, the EPA suggested it would consider two alternatives for coal ash: treating it like a hazardous waste or like a solid, or household, waste.
Since then, in proposed rules aimed at controlling carbon dioxide from power plants and in controlling discharges from power plants into waterways, it has said that a solid waste classification may be adequate to address the risks.
Like many other energy wastes - such as mining and oil and gas drilling muds - coal ash was exempted by Congress in 1980 from hazardous classification until further study to assess its risk.
Both in 1988 and 1993 the EPA decided not to pursue a hazardous classification. Then, in 2000, when it first floated a national standard, the agency said coal ash had the potential "to present danger to human health and the environment."
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