Feds expand toxic coal ash regulations following federal settlement
The Environmental Protection Agency proposed a new rule on Wednesday that would expand federal regulations of toxic coal ash after reaching a settlement with environmental and civil rights groups last month.
The proposal would include previously unregulated sites, such as inactive power plants and landfills, where ash from coal-fired power plants is disposed of, and is intended to curb the harm done to vulnerable communities that have faced polluted drinking water and adverse health effects, including cancer.
In a statement announcing the rule, EPA Administrator Michael Regan said the change was a crucial step to right those wrongs, while stressing that it would not affect the nation’s energy supply.
“This proposal will better protect their health and our environment, and it will reflect our broader commitment to reduce pollution from the power sector in a way that ensures a reliable, affordable supply of electricity,” Regan said.
The settlement resolved an August 2022 lawsuit filed by several advocacy groups, including as Earthjustice, the Indiana Chapter of the NAACP and the Hoosier Environmental Council, among others.
The groups applauded the new rule in a joint statement, lauding the EPA for closing a loophole that allowed power plants that had stopped production and landfills that no longer received new waste to skirt the rule. An analysis by Earthjustice identified 566 landfills across 40 states that were effectively exempt.
“The Biden administration is standing up for people near a lot of hazardous coal waste sites around the country,” Lisa Evans, senior counsel for Earthjustice, said in a statement on Wednesday.
An Earthjustice map shows that of the 566 landfills, a majority are in the Midwest. Indiana had the most with 24, Ohio and Illinois had 23 and Pennsylvania had 21.
The EPA addressed the exemptions in its statement directly, adding that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit had already ordered the agency to address the issue in 2018.
It explained that the new rule would mirror safeguards for "inactive impoundments at active facilities."
But Evans stressed that the while the expansion is a good start, the EPA needs to follow through and hold power plants accountable.
“We’ve learned polluters rarely do the right thing unless they know there are serious consequences. Enforcement will make or break these new safeguards,” Evans said in the statement.
The EPA did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, coal ash contains several heavy metals that, if ingested, can cause nausea, vomiting and diarrhea in the short-term, and if ingested long enough can cause cancer.
Further studies conducted by the Environmental Defense Fund estimate that between 6,000 and 10,000 deaths from heart ailments, respiratory diseases and lung cancer can be linked to about 88 coal-fired power plants across the country.
In the initial complaint, the advocacy groups argued that the EPA’s 2015 Coal Ash Rule created a “blanket exemption” of coal ash landfills from federal oversight effectively “allows hundreds of dangerous and leaking toxic dumps to escape critical safeguards” for sites that “pose an unabated and significant threat to human health and the environment.”
The advocates asked U.S District Judge John D. Bates, a George W. Bush appointee, to order the EPA to review the 2015 rule, which created the first-ever standards for coal ash disposal and revise it to eliminate the loophole.
In order to avoid lengthy and expensive court proceedings, the two groups agreed to a settlement that ordered the agency to complete its review of the previous rule before May 5, 2023 and issue a new proposed rule within a year of completing that review.
The EPA is accepting public comments on the rule for 60 days, until July 16, before moving forward with the proposal.