Is Coal Ash Hazardous Waste?

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Aerial view of Kingston coal ash slide

It’s past time for coal ash to be treated for what it is—dangerous to our health and planet. Instead, nearly three years after the worst coal ash spill in U.S. history, Congress is considering stripping the Environmental Protection Agency of its ability to decide if coal ash should be regulated as a hazardous waste. 2012 could be a pivotal time on this issue.

On December 22, 2008, a coal ash impoundment wall collapsed at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Kingston power plant. The disaster sent 5.4 million cubic yards of toxin-laden sludge into the Emory River and onto surrounding land in eastern Tennessee. The disaster caused more than 300 acres of damage and deposited high levels of heavy metals into the environment. Cleanup costs are estimated at more than $1 billion.

In response to the disaster and data indicating significant impacts on groundwater from leaking ash disposal sites throughout the country, the EPA proposed regulating coal ash as a hazardous waste under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, while allowing some ash to be “beneficially used” in certain products such as using fly ash in place of Portland cement in the production of concrete. The rulemaking would give the EPA direct authority to regulate coal ash as hazardous waste from “cradle-to-grave” and would require the phase-out of wet surface impoundments like the Kingston power plant. But after the Office of Management and Budget reviewed the proposal, the EPA added two weaker options that would regulate coal ash as a nonhazardous “solid waste” and allow states to continue their oversight over coal ash disposal. In addition, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives passed the Coal Residuals Reuse and Management Act in 2011 to strip the EPA of its authority to regulate coal ash as hazardous waste.

Since then, the EPA has released additional data that identified far more surface impoundment dams with a “significant hazard” rating than previously known. In addition, We Energies’ Oak Creek Power Plant sustained a bluff collapse that spilled an estimated 2,500 cubic yards of coal ash into Lake Michigan.

EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson recently announced that the agency would not make a decision on the rule until late 2012 following a new health risk assessment of the “beneficial use” of coal ash in various applications. Reading between the lines, the White House does not want this politically charged issue to impact the president’s chance for re-election. Do not expect to see a decision until after November 2012.

The EPA, however, is also required to propose effluent limitation guidelines under the Clean Water Act for power plants by July 2012. The guidelines may address some but not all of the same concerns as a hazardous waste designation. Strict standards could push power plants to eliminate unlined surface impoundments; however, final action on the rule is not required until January 2014. By then, the EPA may answer to a presidential administration that is hostile to environmental regulation.