EPA's Coal Ash Rule a Good Start But Falls Short: Environmentalists

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Environmentalists have reacted favorably to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s new coal ash rule, while saying the measures don’t go quite far enough.

“While we commend the EPA’s introduction of this first ever rule to help protect communities from this toxic by-product, this rule is just the first step in the right direction,” said Barbara Boyle, Senior Campaign Representative of Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign, in a statement. “We still need stricter standards before our state and nation handle coal ash to the level that is needed to truly protect the health of people and the environment. We will continue to work with the EPA to make sure coal ash is properly disposed of and monitored, now and in the future.”

The rules, issued on December 19—a deadline imposed by a 2013 consent decree related to a lawsuit over coal ash contamination that includes the Moapa Paiute as co-plaintiffs—call for closing above-ground storage areas and landfills that do not meet engineering and storage standards; requiring regular inspections of those facilities; relegating any new such facilities to be built far from wetlands and earthquake zones, among other sensitive areas; groundwater protection measures that include monitoring, immediate cleanup and closure of groundwater-polluting storage areas; reducing windblown dust, and mandating that new storage areas be properly lined. It also lays out parameters for recycling of some of the ash.

“EPA is taking action to protect our communities from the risk of mismanaged coal ash disposal units, and putting in place safeguards to help prevent the next catastrophic coal ash impoundment failure, which can cost millions for local businesses, communities and states,” said EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy in a statement. “These strong safeguards will protect drinking water from contamination, air from coal ash dust, and our communities from structural failures, while providing facilities a practical approach for implementation."

After a 2008 coal ash spill in Tennessee that caused widespread contamination, the EPA assessed more than 500 storage facilities across the country, the agency said, finding numerous instances of disposal units for coal ash—the main waste product from coal-fired power plants—being badly constructed or managed.

A good 140 million tons of coal ash is produced annually, as the Sierra Club noted, and it is laden with toxic heavy metals including arsenic, lead and selenium. Leaching into drinking water and elsewhere in the environment, they pose a public health hazard by increasing the risks of cancer, learning disabilities, neurological disorders, birth defects and asthma, among other illnesses, the Sierra Club said.

“Coal ash in an unlined landfill, in settling ponds that disperse toxic materials in the desert winds, and on roads and other locations at the Reid Gardner site has plagued the nearby Moapa Band of Paiutes’ community for decades,” said Boyle in the Sierra Club statement.

RELATED: Moapa Paiute Sue Over Coal Plant Contaminants

The Reid Gardner plant is scheduled to close in 2017, but a 2013 lawsuit filed by the legal group EarthJustice on behalf of the Moapa Paiute and other plaintiffs alleges that there is no cleanup plan in place. Although the new EPA rule establishes basic requirements for spill remediation and groundwater monitoring, it does not address issues that were raised by catastrophic spills in North Carolina and Tennessee over the past few years, said EarthJustice.

“Today’s rule doesn’t prevent more tragic spills like the ones we are still trying to clean up in North Carolina and Tennessee,” Earthjustice attorney Lisa Evans said in a statement from the legal group. “And it won’t stop the slower moving disaster that is unfolding for communities around the country, as leaky coal ash ponds and dumps poison water.”

Noted Eric Schaeffer, Executive Director of the Environmental Integrity Project, “While EPA’s coal ash rule takes some long overdue steps to establish minimum national groundwater monitoring and cleanup standards, it relies too heavily on the industry to police itself.”