WASHINGTON (AP) – The EPA is taking its first major action to tackle toxic wastewater from coal-fired power plants by ordering utilities to stop dumping waste into unlined storage ponds and expedite plans to close leaking or otherwise hazardous coal ash sites …
Plants in four states will have to close coal ash dumps months or years ahead of schedule, the Environmental Protection Agency said Tuesday, citing deficiencies in groundwater monitoring, treatment or other concerns.
Coal ash, the substance left behind when coal is burned to generate electricity, contains a toxic mixture of mercury, cadmium, arsenic and other heavy metals. It can pollute waterways, poison wildlife and cause respiratory illness in those who live near massive waste ponds.
The action marks the first time that the EPA has enacted a 2015 regulation aimed at reducing groundwater pollution from coal-fired power plants that have polluted streams, lakes and groundwater aquifers.
Coal-fired power plants in the United States produce about 100 million tons (90 million metric tons) of ash and other waste annually.
The Obama administration was the first to regulate the storage and disposal of toxic coal ash, including a requirement to close coal ash dump ponds that were unstable or contaminated groundwater. The Trump administration relaxed the Obama-era rule in 2020, allowing utilities to use cheaper technology and adhere to pollution reduction guidelines for longer, which are less stringent than the agency originally enacted.
Environmental Protection Agency administrator Michael Regan said the action, announced on Tuesday, will ensure that ash pits meet stringent environmental and safety standards, and that industrial operators are held accountable.
“I’ve seen firsthand how coal ash pollution can harm people and communities,” said Reagan, a former North Carolina environmental supervisor who negotiated with Duke Energy about what government officials said was the largest clean-up deal ever. from toxic coal ash.
“For too long, communities that have already been disproportionately affected by high levels of pollution have been burdened with improper disposal of coal ash,” Regan said. “Today’s actions will help us protect communities and hold institutions accountable. We look forward to working with our government partners to repair the damage already done. ”
In separate letters sent on Tuesday, the EPA rejected requests for renewal of permits to use coal ash at the Clifty Creek power plant in Madison, Indiana; The James M. Gavin plant in Cheshire, Ohio; and the Ottumwa plant in Ottumwa, Iowa.
The Greenidge Generation plant in Dresden, New York has been declared unsuitable for expansion. The former coal plant now runs on natural gas.
HL Spurlock’s plant in Maysville, Kentucky will have to install groundwater monitoring as a condition for its coal ash dump to continue operating, the Environmental Protection Agency said.
Lisa Evans, senior attorney for environmental group Earthjustice, said the enforcement action “sends a strong message to the industry that (EPA compliance) is not paperwork. This requires them to clean these toxic places. “
Frank Holleman, an attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center who has fought with Duke Energy and utilities over coal ash disposal, said the enforcement measures provide significant protection for clean water across the country.
“The EPA has given a clear message that (power plant operators) cannot leave coal ash in primitive polluting ponds across the country,” he said.
Holleman said utilities in Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee and other states that still store coal ash in leaking, unlined pits in groundwater and near waterways are among those covered by the decision.
Coal ash ponds have been around for decades. Data released by utilities in 2018 showed widespread evidence of pollution at coal-fired power plants from Virginia to Alaska.
The storage and disposal of coal ash was largely unregulated until the 2008 spill at the Tennessee Valley Authority power plant in Kingston, Tennessee. A protective dam broke and flooding covered over 300 acres (121 million hectares), waste was dumped into two nearby rivers, houses were destroyed, and brought the issue to the attention of the entire country.
In 2014, about 39,000 tonnes of coal ash poured into the Dan River after the collapse of a drain pipe running under a waste dump at Duke Energy’s plant in Eden, North Carolina. The toxic sludge has turned the river gray for over 70 miles (112 kilometers).
The Environmental Protection Agency on Tuesday confirmed its “ongoing position that surface water reservoirs or landfills cannot be closed due to coal ash coming into contact with groundwater.” There is access to safe water near the facilities for drinking and recreation, the EPA said.