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EPA Will Set National Standards For Coal Ash Regulation

Dave Emerson

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced Friday it will set national standards for the regulation of coal ash, the byproduct of burning coal, in hopes of preventing air and water contamination.

The rules could have a significant impact on Indiana, which has about 80 coal ash storage ponds, more than any other state in the country.

The EPA’s new requirements, which are intended to prevent what the EPA calls catastrophic failure, include changing structural integrity requirements for new and existing waste receptacles and restricts the locations of new areas for coal ash storage.

Specifically, coal ash ponds would need to be lined as a way to keep the coal ash from seeping into the groundwater. Existing ponds would not need to make any changes.

EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy says the new rules set a consistent baseline for industries and states to follow.

“[It's] the result of an open, transparent and deliberate process to look at all of the facts,” McCarthy says. “This rule is a pragmatic step forward that protects public health while allowing the industry the time it needs to be thoughtful about meeting these new requirements.”

The agency, however, stopped short of labeling coal ash as a hazardous material, to the dismay of some environmental groups.

“They’re basically treating it the same way they would municipal trash or household trash and we think coal ash needs more care than that,” says Sierra Club Beyond Coal Campaign Indiana spokeswoman Jodi Perras.

Environmentalists also say they are disappointed that enforcement of the new standards is being left up to state agencies.

“It puts forth standards that industry has to follow but there is very little oversight to that process unless it’s done by citizens,” Hoosier Environmental Council Senior Policy Director Tim Maloney says, adding that Indiana does not have a good track record when keeping up with federal regulations.

EPA officials, though, say they plan to keep in close communications with states to make sure they have a framework in place to monitor coal ash disposal and storage.

Energy companies have strongly opposed the EPA’s plans to regulate coal ash.

Justin Barrett, an environmental coordinator at Indianapolis Power & Light, which has several lagoons around the state, says they watch their coal ash levels closely, and that they haven’t had any seepage off their property.

“If any issues are noted, corrective actions are taken immediately,” Barrett said. “If we need to engage our engineering firm that specializes in ash ponds, we contact them immediately.”

Duke Energy, which owns several coal ash ponds in the state, echoed that sentiment.

“Duke Energy already is aggressively taking action to improve coal ash management across its service territories by closing ash basins in a way that protects the environment and local communities,” Duke Energy officials said in a statement. “Duke Energy will adjust its existing ash management plans, as necessary, to comply with all state and federal regulations.”

Coal waste can contain lead, arsenic, mercury, and other heavy metals – environmental hazards compounded by the fact that most coal-fueled power plants are located near water sources.

The debate over regulating coal ash took hold in 2008 after a large spill at a Tennessee power plant. Another major spill occurred in North Carolina at a Duke Energy facility earlier this year.

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