The Biden administration is making the first significant steps toward addressing the lingering and widespread problems caused by toxic ash from coal power plants. This is one of the most prominent issues in the country. environmental health legaciesEnjoy more than a century worth of coal-fired electric generation
The agency’s action could have serious implications for states such as Kentucky and Indiana, which are already grappling with the consequences of large amounts of waste products from coal-burning.
It is also where decisions will be made about whether coal-ash can safely be ensconced where it was once stored in watery mines, or whether it should instead be sent to modern, dry, clean landfills with liner system and other measures to protect the groundwater.
2015 saw the Obama administration pass the first national regulations on coal ash. This required that approximately 500 unlined coal ash surfaces be impoundments in all 50 countries to cease receiving waste and start closing by April 2021.
These ash dumps are often contaminated with mercury, cadmium, and arsenic and pollute groundwater.
While the Trump administration granted utilities the right to request extensions, Tuesday’s announcement by the Biden Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) stated that nine of the 57 extensions applications have been received.
Three were denied by the agency, including one from Clifty Power in Madison, Indiana. One was approved by East Kentucky Powers Spurlock, a power plant in Maysville in Kentucky. Four were incomplete, and one was ineligible.
Officials at the EPA said that more determinations are expected.
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EPA declares Indiana’s Gallagher plant retired in compliance
The EPA also stated it was putting power plants on notice about their obligations to comply. It was also working on plans to make future changes to regulations to ensure coal ash dumps are compliant with strong safety and environmental standards.
The Gallagher plant in New Albany, now closed by Duke Energy, received a letter stating that it was not in compliance. It had stored millions upon millions of tons of coal-ash near the Ohio River, across from western Louisville.
According to EPA there are two surface impoundments for the plant with ash that have been buried in groundwater 20 feet from the plant’s twin stacks. This is in response to long regulatory battles. EPA stated that Duke must demonstrate how it can keep the ash in place and prevent contaminants from entering groundwater if it wants to avoid having to remove it.
IndyStar was told by Duke EnergyIt believes that all of its work to date was in compliance with industry standards and regulations. Angeline Protogere, spokeswoman for the utility, stated that they have a shared interest in ensuring customers and communities are protected in the future.
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Environmental lawyers who have been fighting for coal-ash regulations saw reason to be optimistic in the actions of the agency.
Abel Russ, a senior lawyer with the group Environmental Integrity Project said that EPA’s proposed actions showed it understood that utilities are not properly monitoring underground water in ways that could prevent cleanup requirements.
It is a beginning of a process that we hope to see enforcement at multiple levels. Russ, who is the principal author of a 2019 report using utility records to determine unsafe levels of groundwater toxic contaminantsMore than 9 out of 10 coal-fired power stations are connected to it.
Tennessee Valley Authority is plagued with coal ash pit leaks
The Southern Environmental Law Center has won cases in coal ash cleanup in North Carolina and South Carolina. The EPA’s determinations have set a precedent for compliance across the country, including Tennessee where the center claims that tens of million of tons of coal ash remain in leaky coal ash mines at Tennessee Valley Authority power stations.
Frank Holleman is a senior attorney at U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. He said that the agency has taken steps to give hope to communities and to protect drinking water supplies and clean water sources from the threats posed coal ash. With the leadership of the EPA, we now have an opportunity to put aside the coal ash catastrophes and pollution and to restore common-sense safeguards for communities throughout the South that have been affected by the contamination for too many years.
Edison Electric Institute, a trade association representing investor-owned utilities, believes that electric companies are managing coalash in ways that protect the environment, reduce the impact on the community, and minimize costs to customers.
Brian Reil, the spokesperson for the Institute, did not immediately respond to requests for comment about the EPA actions. Jim Roewer (executive director of the Utility Solid waste Activities Group), an association of over 131 utilities, also did not respond to inquiries about the EPA actions.
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Utilities claim they can remove the water surface from a coal-ash pit and cover it up to protect our environment.
In Announcement of its proposed determinationsThe agency stated that it was confirming its belief that ash disposal pits and landfills cannot be closed with ash in direct contact with groundwater. It stated that limiting contact between coal ash, groundwater and the landfill after closure is crucial to minimize releases of contaminants into environment and contamination of water for drinking or recreation.
Michael Regan, EPA administrator, said Tuesday that he has seen firsthand the damage coal ash contamination can cause to communities and people. Surface impoundments for coal ash and landfills must be operated and closed in a way that protects the environment and public health. Our actions today will help us protect communities as well as hold facilities responsible.
What is coal ash?
After coal is burned to create electricity, coal ash or other combustion wastes remain.
Mercury, cadmium and even arsenic in waste piles can pollute air and groundwater. These chemicals are associated with cancers and other health problems. There have been hundreds of power plants built over the past century. Produced billions of tons of ash, and other combustion wastes, including scrubber sludge.
Lisa Evans, a senior attorney specializing on hazardous waste law at Earthjustice (a national environmental law organization), described the new EPA proposals actions as a potential game-changer.
She stated that they indicate that the agency will use enforcement powers it did not have before to crack down on what she called blatant noncompliance from utilities that has often left communities of color exposed and polluted.
Evans said that the EPA announcement does nothing to address the problem of coal ash, which was dumped and buried prior to 2015 EPA regulations. This could be as much or more than half of all coal ash ever made.
Inside Climate NewsThis non-partisan news outlet covers the environment, energy, and climate.