EPA Just Saved Utilities a Lot of Money With Weak Coal Ash Regulation

When power plants burn coal, they’re left with a coal ash residue containing arsenic, mercury, lead, and selenium. Until today, there were no federal standards for utilities to dispose of it. Utilities produce more than 100 million tons of the stuff annually, and what’s not recycled into concrete is spread across the country in 1,400 dry and wet ponds. The problem, environmentalists say, is that the coal ash is sometimes dumped into unlined and open-air pits and seeps into the ground, gets picked up by the wind, and occasionally spills into rivers and streams.

For the first time, the Environmental Protection Agency has set a minimum baseline for coal-ash disposal that leaves enforcement to states. Ponds will now have to be inspected regularly and monitored for groundwater contamination; those that are leaky will be shut down. New ponds will now have to be lined and located away from sensitive areas like earthquake zones and wetlands. Otherwise, the EPA doesn’t address what to do with inactive ponds. The EPA’s regulations would not have applied to Duke Energy’s Dan River site, where a closed-down pond leaked 39,000 tons of coal ash into the river in February.

Environmentalists hoped the EPA would label coal ash as a hazardous waste, requiring utilities to dispose of it in facilities that are lined and sealed and far away from bodies of water. They’ve been asking the EPA to set stricter requirements for years—ever since the coal ash spill in Kingston, Tennessee in 2008. The EPA labeled it as a solid waste instead, meaning coal ash ponds are subject to requirements similar to those controlling household waste.

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