- The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is expected to release a second rule in September governing the disposal of coal ash, the waste byproduct of burning coal to generate electricity.
- The EPA’s first federal rule on coal ash was aimed at eliminating the leaking of contaminants into ground water, the blowing of contaminants into the air as dust, and the catastrophic failure of coal ash surface impoundments. Released in December 2014, it disappointed environmentalists because it failed to classify coal ash as hazardous waste.
- The new rule will set the first federal limits on toxic metals from ash in wastewater discharges from power plants. Its impact on the power sector, the Charlotte Observer reports, is expected to be limited because most power plant operators now dispose of dry ash, rather than storing it in ponds where it can threaten nearby lakes and rivers.
The first rule left utilities nearly as disappointed as environmentalists, Utility Dive reported. They would have rather seen a state permitting regime with state enforcement powers, a power sector lawyer said at the time.
Though that rule did provide a uniform national system for coal ash regulation, it is considered "self-implementing" and will rely on citizen lawsuits and the courts to uphold its regulations.
The new rules, aimed at reducing the release of toxic metals from power plants, will affect any generators still disposing of ash in plant wastewater. But the Charlotte Observer reports that most coal plants have moved to dry ash disposal, and are working to phase out liquid coal ash ponds no longer in use. Neither the new EPA rule nor North Carolina's Coal Ash Management act addresses those older ponds, a Waterkeeper Alliance lawyer told the paper.
In addition to governing toxic metals from coal ash, the new EPA rule will cover power plant scrubbers that reduce air pollution from coal plants but release wastewater high in metals.
The U.S. House of Representatives recently passed a bill to limit parts of the first EPA coal ash rule. Republicans who sponsored the bill, entitled the Improving Coal Combustion Residuals Regulation Act (H.R. 1734), argue it maintains EPA-imposed health and safety standards on coal ash waste sites through the legal system and state regulators rather than through federal agencies.
The bill “eliminates or undermines necessary protections” to health from the disposed ash byproduct of coal burning which contains arsenic, chromium, and mercury and other toxic substances, according to the White House. President Obama has indicated he would veto the bill should it pass the Senate.