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December 27, 2014
EPA Announces Regulations for Coal Ash Disposal
    by Robert Kropp

But by declining to classify coal ash as hazardous waste, the Agency fails to adequately safeguard human health, the advocacy organization As You Sow states. Second of a two-part series.

The war on coal that industry-friendly Republican politicians contend is the Obama administration's strategy for dealing with climate change and threats to human health achieved another victory last week, when the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced the nation's first-ever federal regulations governing the disposal of coal ash.

A toxic byproduct of coal-fired power production, coal ash contains a number of chemicals that are known to cause severe health problems. Inadequate storage of coal ash has in recent years caused at least two major environmental and human health disasters. In 2008, “a massive coal ash dump in Kingston, Tenn., burst through a dike, sending more than a billion gallons of toxic waste across 300 acres of riverfront property, damaging and destroying two dozen nearby homes,” according to Earthjustice. And in February of this year, at least 27 million gallons of contaminated water spilled from a coal ash pond operated by Duke Energy into the Dan River in North Carolina.

In January, a lawsuit brought by public interest groups and the Moapa Band of Paiutes prompted a District Court to order EPA to issue regulations on coal ash disposal by the end of this year. The requirements issued last week include regular inspections and closure of surface impoundments and landfills that fail to meet standards; restrictions on location; liner barriers for new units: regular monitoring of water quality; and controls to reduce windblown coal ash dust.

“EPA is taking action to protect our communities from the risk of mismanaged coal ash disposal units, and putting in place safeguards to help prevent the next catastrophic coal ash impoundment failure, which can cost millions for local businesses, communities and states,” said EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy. “These strong safeguards will protect drinking water from contamination, air from coal ash dust, and our communities from structural failures, while providing facilities a practical approach for implementation.”

Describing the EPA announcement as “an important step forward,” the advocacy group As You Sow nevertheless stated, “The rule does not go far enough to protect public health or the environment, declining to classify coal ash as hazardous waste, and sidestepping rigorous enforcement by delegating to state regulators.”

Shareowner resolutions brought by As You Sow addressing coal ash risk have received considerable shareowner support in recent years, including several that received more than 40% of shares voted. A resolution filed with Ameren by the Midwest Coalition for Responsible Investment, requesting that the company report on its efforts to "identify and reduce environmental and health hazards associated with past and present handling of coal combustion waste," received favorable votes from 52.7% of shareowners in 2011.

As You Sow is also party to a lawsuit with Duke Energy regarding the utility's handling of the coal ash spill in February.

“Seven years after the TVA coal ash spill, regulators are finally catching up,” said Andrew Behar, As You Sow CEO. However, he added, “The EPA’s new coal ash rules do not solve the coal ash problem.”

According to As You Sow, “The EPA’s rule suggests significant influence from the electric power sector, and does little to protect the public. The new rule effectively treats this hazardous, dangerous waste like normal household trash, and gives state regulators numerous opportunities to avoid strict enforcement.”

“We need effective oversight to keep industry from taking risks that are dangerous to both communities and shareholder investments,” Behar said. “Coal ash is stored in thousands of ponds, piles, and pools across the US. These are ticking time-bombs that could destroy nearby communities and shareholder value at any time.”


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