Updated: EPA to reconsider portions of Obama-era coal ash rule
- The Environmental Protection Agency will reconsider portions of an Obama-era rule setting standards for the disposal of coal ash from power plants, the agency announced Thursday.
- Power generators asked the EPA in May to reconsider portions of the 2014 Coal Combustion Residuals (CCR) rule. EPA did not commit to rewriting any portion, but said in a release that it is in the "public’s interest to reconsider specific provisions."
- The CCR rule is the nation's first federal oversight for the disposal of coal ash. Environmental groups decried the move, calling it a "ploy to scrap the protections entirely."
Announced in late 2014, the EPA's coal ash rule pleased neither power generators nor environmental advocates.
The rule set the first federal standards for coal ash disposal, but classified the substance as a solid waste, as opposed to hazardous waste, under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA).
The rule was designed to be self-implementing, meaning the federal government cannot enforce the regulations itself. But in December of last year, Congress updated RCRA to give EPA enforcement authority and allow states to propose alternative technical standards for ash disposal, so long as they are as protective as the federal rule.
Power sector interests argued the legislative changes made compliance unworkable. In May, the Utility Solid Waste Activities Group (USWAG) said approaching regulatory deadlines were forcing companies to make "irreversible and tremendously significant long-term business and operational decisions," including pulling coal plants offline.
On Thursday, the EPA granted USWAG's petition, saying it would reconsider portions of the rule. But the agency stopped short of committing to rewrite any section of the regulation.
“EPA is not committing to changing any part of the rule, or agreeing with the merits of the petition – the Agency is simply granting petitions to reconsider specific provisions,” officials said in a statement.
The decision came before opening arguments at the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals in a case challenging the rule. Both environmental and industry groups have filed lawsuits. EPA's move prompted environmental groups to argue the review is actually an attempt to eliminate the rule altogether. With the regulation under review, judges could suspend compliance deadlines for utilities.
"The new clean water protections Pruitt is aiming to 'reconsider' are the first substantive step EPA has taken toward reining in pollution from coal ash," the Sierra Club said in a statement. "Pruitt’s decision to 'reconsider' the protections jeopardizes the safety of those communities that depend on waterways and groundwater supplies near where coal ash pits are located."
Correction: An earlier version of this post omitted details about Congressional updates to the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act at the end of 2016.
Follow Gavin Bade on Twitter