EPA Passes the Buck on Toxic Coal-Ash Sludge
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EPA Passes the Buck on Toxic Coal-Ash Sludge

Siding with Coal and Power Companies, the Federal Agency Wants States Overseeing Deadly Pollutants

Directors of state environmental agencies could decide not to clean up some pollution from contaminants such as arsenic, lead and mercury from coal ash under new Environmental Protection Agency guidelines.

Industry groups successfully lobbied for state regulation of coal ash, the ash that remains after power plants burn coal to produce electricity. The ash—117 million tons of it was produced in 2015—has caused millions of dollars in damage in spills, including major disasters in Harriman, Tenn., and near Eden, N.C. Around half of the coal ash produced each year is recycled into building products; the rest ends up in landfills and ponds.

Frank Holleman, a senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center, said state political appointees are vulnerable to pressure from the utilities.

“In general, the states have done a very poor job of overseeing these sites,” Holleman said. “By and large, the states failed.”

Action Box/What You Can Do About It

Comment online by Sept. 14 (ID: EPA-HQ-OLEM-2017-0458-0001). Other ways to comment are on the EPA website.

Tell EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt your thoughts via his Facebook and Twitter sites. His email is Pruitt.scott@Epa.gov. His phone number is 202-564-4700.

Write him at USEPA Headquarters / William Jefferson Clinton Building / 1200 Pennsylvania Ave. NW / Mail Code: 1101A / Washington, D.C. 20460.

Christie St. Clair, an EPA spokeswoman, said Georgia and Oklahoma have applied for permits. She said directors of state environmental agencies could decide against cleaning up contaminants in situations such as the water not being a source of drinking water.

John Ward, a spokesman for the American Coal Ash Association, said the “flexibility” in the guidelines could result in more protective programs.

“The current EPA regulation is a one-size-fits-all set of standards that ignores regional differences in geology, weather, disposal practices, and more,” Ward said.

The guidelines would also allow state directors, not just professional engineers, to certify coal ash disposal sites and sets out how states could get independent attorneys for the state to approve the permit process instead of the attorney general of the state.

The 2015 regulations on disposing of coal ash were drawn up after catastrophic releases of coal ash. On Dec. 22, 2008, a dike ruptured at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Kingston Fossil Plant near Harriman, Tenn., releasing 5.4 million cubic yards of coal-ash sludge into the Emory and Clinch rivers.

The cleanup cost more than $1.2 billion. More than 50 workers or survivors of the dead have sued over health problems they claim to have suffered clearing away the coal ash.

On Feb. 2, 2014, a coal-ash spill at Duke Energy Corp. near Eden, N.C. coated 70 miles of the Dan River with liquefied coal ash.

The EPA guidelines, published Aug. 10, are just that, guidelines or recommendations which the EPA under Administrator Scott Pruitt, an industry friend, says can’t be relied on in a lawsuit.

Environmental groups had asked the EPA to issue formal rules, not guidelines.

The coal industry supported legislation to allow the states to regulate coal ash. In December, language to accomplish that was tucked into a water projects bill with support from Rep. David McKinley (R-W. Va.)

Featured Photo: Kingston Fossil Plant coal-ash spill in Tennessee. Photo by John L. Wathen, Southwings.

August 22, 2017