EPA to Decide Whether Coal Ash is Hazardous Waste

(USA Today 8-27-2010) The U.S. coal industry is bracing for tighter and more costly regulation of its waste. Environmental groups say that it's about time.
The Environmental Protection Agency next week is set to begin a month of hearings on whether coal-ash waste — what's left after coal is burned to make electricity — should be effectively treated as hazardous waste subject to tighter safeguards.
Environmental groups say it should. But industry groups say safety can be achieved without treating the waste as hazardous, which could make it less attractive to recyclers. Some 43% of coal-ash waste is used in such things as concrete, cement and wallboard.
The EPA has said it may make a decision by the end of next year. The impact could potentially be broad, affecting hundreds of coal plants nationwide and the people who live near them.
"The question isn't whether to regulate, but how," says Jim Roewer, executive director of the industry-focused Utility Solid Waste Activities Group.
The EPA is weighing two proposals. One is more stringent than the other and is supported by environmental groups. It would call the ash a "special" waste and effectively treat it as hazardous. It would also add regulations inside plants and on trucks, require more safeguards on closed sites, and involve the EPA in enforcement.
The other proposal — supported by industry — would not treat coal ash as a hazardous waste and would, among other things, leave enforcement of rules up to citizens. They could force changes by bringing lawsuits against power plants. States could act as citizens.
Roewer says that the more stringent proposal could cost the industry $20 billion a year and be so burdensome that some plants may close because they can't afford the changes. "It's regulatory overkill," Roewer says.
The environmentalists say the other proposal wouldn't effectively protect communities. "We're hoping to make this a battle of the facts," says Lisa Evans of Earthjustice.
The EPA in May proposed the first-ever national rules for the management and disposal of coal ash. It's currently regulated by states with different standards.
Coal ash contains contaminants such as mercury, cadmium and arsenic, which are associated with cancer and other health effects, the EPA says. Without protection, they may leach into groundwater and migrate to drinking water, the agency says.
The EPA started to push for the regulation after a coal-ash spill in 2008 in Tennessee required hundreds of millions of dollars in cleanup and caused broad environmental damage.
Environmental groups say widespread contamination to water supplies near coal-ash sites has already occurred. In a report Thursday, environmentalists alleged that 39 coal-ash sites in 21 states have contaminated surface or groundwater, based on analysis of state records. At each site where groundwater was monitored, concentrations of heavy metals such as arsenic or lead exceeded federal health-based standards for drinking water, the report said.
The 39 sites are in addition to 31 others named by the groups in February. The EPA has identified an additional 67 sites where water has been contaminated, the environmental groups say.
Most of the sites are in big coal states, such as Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky and Pennsylvania.
Environmentalists fear more contamination at other sites — which number about 900 nationwide, the EPA says — because many states don't require groundwater monitoring near coal-ash sites. "When you look, you will find contamination," says Jeff Stant of the Environmental Integrity Project, a non-profit formed by former EPA attorneys. He says health studies have never been done on residents near coal-ash sites.