Dive Brief:

  • The Environmental Protection Agency on Thursday proposed a new rule that would give states and utilities more flexibility in the disposal of coal ash.
  • EPA’s proposal would make a dozen changes to Obama-era coal ash regulations challenged in court, including allowing states to design their own standards for ash disposal. EPA previewed many of the changes in a November court filing.
  • EPA says the relaxed standards would save the power industry $100 million a year through reduced compliance costs, but environmental groups said it would allow states to undermine key provisions in the Obama-era rule that intended to prevent contamination from toxic chemicals in coal ash.

The Obama administration’s coal ash rule was proposed in 2015 after a series of high-profile ash spills clogged rivers and cut off drinking water service in states like West Virginia, North Carolina and Tennessee. The rules would have set the nation’s first minimum standards for coal ash disposal, but were never implemented due to court challenges.The rule was designed to be self-implementing, but in December of 2016, Congress updated the rule’s underlying statute to give EPA the ability to enforce standards and allow states to propose alternative technical standards for ash disposal.

Power sector interests balked at the enhanced oversight. In May 2017, theUtility Solid Waste Activities Group (USWAG) told EPA that approaching regulatory deadlines were forcing companies to make “irreversible and tremendously significant long-term business and operational decisions,” including pulling coal plants offline.EPA in September granted the group’s request to review the rule, subject to a challenge by USWAG and others at the D.C. Circuit court. In November, the agency filed a brief with the court outlining 16 potential changes to the rule.

The proposed rule issued Thursday includes many of those changes, including alterations to groundwater monitoring and protection standards, cleanup and closure rules, location restrictions for ash pits, and deadlines for the rules.EPA argues the loosened rules will make compliance cheaper for utilities, but environmental groups say they will gut critical protections against coal ash leaks, which can contaminate ground and drinking water with heavy metals like arsenic and lead.

 The Obama administration rule would have required utilities to begin testing water near coal ash facilities for contamination this year, Earthjustice noted in a statement. Now, green groups said, communities near coal plants across the country may not get that assurance.
“Without this rule, the AES coal-burning power plant in Guayama, Puerto Rico will not be required to monitor groundwater underneath the coal ash waste pile that has hundreds of thousands of tons of toxic waste in it — all exposed to the elements,” Ruth Santiago, attorney for Comite Diálogo Ambiental, wrote in a statement. “Our environmental regulators are supposed to protect us, not make things worse.”
Earthjustice estimates there are more than 1,400 coal ash sites in the United States and at least 200 of them are “known to have contaminated water sources.”