Environment

A state legislative committee has approved a controversial proposal to change the way Kentucky regulates coal ash. The Administrative Regulation Review Subcommittee passed the proposal at its meeting Monday, after delaying a decision from last month.

The Energy and Environment Cabinet’s proposed rule would incorporate the federal government’s coal ash regulations, and it would also significantly weaken the permitting process for new coal ash landfills in the state.

Coal ash is one of the nation’s largest waste streams; it’s produced at power plants that burn coal for electricity and stored in ponds or dry landfills. It also contains a laundry list of elements, which can migrate into ground and surface water near coal ash sites.

The new proposal would change the way landfills are permitted. At present, the regulations stipulate a number of factors that go into permitting the sites — everything from where the landfills can be located to how and where the utility is required to monitor groundwater.

In some cases, like at Louisville Gas & Electric’s Trimble County power plant, the permitting process can take years. The new regulations would change that to a simple registered permit-by-rule, where state regulators wouldn’t sign off on a landfill before it’s permitted. The state or citizens could cite or sue after the fact if problems are discovered.

The cabinet released the proposed regulations last year. In January, WFPL News broke the story that the state had drafted the regulations after more than a year’s worth of meetings exclusively with representatives of electric utilities.

The version state regulators drafted before the meetings began was comprehensive and incorporated the new federal standards while maintaining the state’s current comprehensive permitting program for coal ash landfills.

At the legislative meeting on Monday, Deputy Secretary Bruce Scott told lawmakers that regulators would continue scrutinizing coal ash sites under the proposed regulations.

“Our enforcement and oversight responsibility in the field of what’s going on will continue,” he said. “We’re not going to abdicate our responsibility to go inspect, watch construction, installation, etc., so all that stuff is going to continue the way it always has under the current rules, much less the ones we’re proposing today.”

But the new regulations don’t lay out the cabinet’s duties when it comes to regulating coal ash landfills to the degree of specificity in the current regulations.

At the meeting, Tom FitzGerald of the Kentucky Resources Council spoke against the proposal, calling it one of the most irresponsible that he’s seen in his decades of working in the state. He said the cabinet’s recent approval of a landfill for LG&E’s Trimble County plant would be drastically different under the new regulations.

While speaking, FitzGerald held up the one-page registered permit-by-rule the utility would have to fill out.

“If they elect to be regulated by this, to the extent we can call this regulation, there’s no inspection that will occur, there’s no notice to the cabinet, there no necessity they get a second operating permit once they’ve completed the construction,” he said. “What’s lost is the critical oversight that people … in that area rely on the cabinet to provide.”

The proposal next goes before the Interim Joint Committee on Natural Resources and Environment. If that committee approves the regulations, they become law.

Erica Peterson is WFPL's Assignment Editor.