WASHINGTON — The Environmental Protection Agency on Tuesday proposed the nation's first federal rules for the disposal of contaminant-laden ash from coal-fired power plants, but delayed a decision for at least three months on whether coal ash should be regulated as a hazardous substance.
The ash contains the contaminated remains of coal, including mercury, arsenic, cadmium and other substances that can cause cancer and other illnesses. The EPA's testing has shown that without protections, these contaminants can find their way into drinking water supplies.
Only if the EPA declares coal ash is hazardous will it be able to enforce tougher rules nationwide. The other option would let EPA set standards, but the federal agency wouldn't have oversight or enforcement power. States or individuals would have to file lawsuits to try to get waste disposal site managers to comply. The EPA will decide after a 90-day comment period.
Coal ash from power plants is held in wet form in lagoons and sent to landfills and other sites, including old mines and quarries, at about 900 places around the country, in almost every state. In some lagoons at power plants, the ash has been building up for decades.
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Depending on the approach EPA ultimately adopts, the proposed rules would phase-out coal ash lagoons and toughen protections at landfills.
The EPA has talked about setting standards for coal ash disposal on and off since the 1980s, but has never done it until now. In many states, coal ash is handled no differently than common garbage is. The EPA has observed sites where the waste is leaching into the water.
The power industry, which relies heavily on coal to produce electricity, lobbied the White House intensively in recent months to block EPA from declaring coal ash a hazard.
The dangers of coal ash got national attention in December 2008 when the dam of a waste lagoon broke at a Tennessee Valley Authority power plant in Kingston, Tenn., spilling millions of cubic yards of sludgy ash. The TVA has been shipping the dredged ash to a municipal landfill in Uniontown, Ala., where residents have said they're worried about air- and water-borne contamination.
Some of the nation's vast stores of coal ash is used for grading roads and for making things such as concrete and wallboard. Beneficial uses in which the coal ash can't leach out and harm human health or the environment would remain legal under either form of the proposed rule. The EPA said in a statement that the new regulations would "promote environmentally safe and desirable forms of recycling coal ash."
"The time has come for common-sense national protections to ensure the safe disposal of coal ash," EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said.
Jim Roewer, the executive director of the Utility Solid Waste Activities Group, a lobby group for the power industry, said that coal ash should be ruled a non-hazardous waste.
"This approach will protect public health and the environment, without damaging beneficial uses of coal combustion byproducts," he said. He added that if EPA regulated the ash as hazardous waste and required some coal ash storage sites to close, the costs would go up, but there would be no "commensurate health or environmental benefit."
Lisa Evans, an attorney at the environmental firm Earthjustice who's followed coal ash issues, said the health risks, EPA's own scientific findings and the law should give EPA no choice but to regulate coal ash as a hazardous waste.
"We are extremely pleased to see this rule finally come out. It's been 30 years in the making and long overdue," she said.
There are numerous and growing cases of coal ash harming people's health and the environment, Evans said.
Earthjustice and other groups issued a report in February that listed 31 coal ash contamination sites in 14 states, in addition to the dozens EPA already had identified.
"For many decades, the coal industry has avoided paying the true costs of the mining, burning and ash disposal associated with its dirty product," said Bruce Nilles, the deputy conservation director for the Sierra Club.
EPA regulation of coal ash as a hazardous waste would make coal industry responsible for the waste it generates, "level the playing field with clean energy alternatives and begin to put the communities that today are at enormous risk out of harm's way," he said.
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