After nearly 4 years of delays, the Environmental Protection Agency has agreed to finalize its regulations for coal ash by December.
Coal ash is a byproduct of burning coal in power plants. In Louisville, it’s stored at both the Cane Run and Mill Creek power plants. But despite promises to regulate the ash after a disastrous 2008 spill in Kingston, Tennessee, the EPA hasn’t finalized regulations.
Now, in response to a lawsuit filed by a coalition of environmental groups, the EPA has agreed to finalize the regulations by December 19. Jared Saylor of Earthjustice says getting the rules on the books will go a long ways toward reducing air and water pollution from coal ash landfills.
“Having this federal standard is really going to be an important step toward protecting our water, protecting our air and protecting the communities that are directly exposed to coal ash waste,” he says.
The EPA has been considering two different ways to regulate coal ash. One would categorize it as a hazardous waste—this approach is favored by environmental groups. But a small percentage of the ash is recycled into products like concrete, and the utility industry says calling it a hazardous waste would end that practice. Many trade groups support the other option, which would categorize coal ash as a “special waste.”
Saylor says it’s especially important that the EPA finalize the regulations before 2016, which is when the Mercury and Air Toxics standard goes into effect. Under that regulation, power plants will have to install controls to reduce the pollution going out the smokestacks. But ironically, that results in more toxic coal ash.
“What’s taken out of the smoke stacks often ends up in the coal ash and so having a federal standard that really does set some protection levels is going to be even more important as we start to clean up the air pollution,” Saylor says. “It doesn’t disappear, it has to go somewhere, and we want to make sure it doesn’t end up from the air into our water and into our bodies.”
Several bills have been introduced in Congress to block the EPA from regulating coal ash; the most recent passed the House in July but didn’t make much leeway in the Senate.