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EPA’s coal ash proposal draws mixed reaction
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced plans Tuesday to regulate the disposal of coal ash, and the news was greeted with mixed emotions by environmentalists in Iowa and across the country. While the move is seen as a positive step towards finally regulating the toxic byproduct of burning coal, some fear the regulations won’t go far enough or that the coal industry’s power could once again derail the process.
“We’re excited, as these rules were 30 years in the making,” said Carrie La Seur, president and co-founder of Cedar Rapids-based Plains Justice. “But the forces against tougher rules are enormous. You can’t overstate the strength of the coal industry in Washington, and I’m still concerned that the interests who oppose these rules can impact the process.”
Others are concerned with the EPA’s decision to put forward two alternatives, one that would regulate coal ash under strict hazardous-waste rules (although they aren’t calling it “hazardous”), and a weaker and less expensive option that would regulate it under the same framework that governs household garbage.
“We are disappointed that the rule brings forward two dramatically different regulatory options,” said Scott Slesinger, legislative director for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “We expect the EPA to choose the option that adequately protects the public, particularly our precious groundwater, and treats this hazardous waste as a hazardous waste.”
But while concerns still exist, most were optimistic the process would result in strong oversight.
“This is certainly a win of sorts, in that the EPA is finally making strides to regulate coal ash as hazardous waste,” said Trip Van Noppen, executive director for Washington, D.C.,-based Earthjustice. “Their inclusion of an option to regulate coal ash as hazardous waste is an important first step. The next important step will be to maintain this position in the face of inevitably misguided claims by polluters that the sky will fall under this new regulatory environment. The science is clear that coal ash is hazardous waste, and we are confident this administration will stand by its commitment to follow the science in its policy decisions.”
Coal ash, also known as fly ash, is the waste produced by burning coal. The ash contains much greater concentrations of elements such as mercury, zinc, lead, arsenic and selenium than the coal itself. Exposure to these toxins can lead to cancer, birth defects and reproductive problems. An EPA report released last summer found the cancer risk to be 1 in 2,000 from exposure to arsenic in drinking water for residents living near unlined landfills containing coal ash and coal refuse, which is 500 times the level usually regarded as safe by current federal regulations.
Despite the well-documented dangers of coal ash, the EPA has never regulated its disposal, leaving each state to set its own rules.
Wet vs. Dry
In Iowa, the disposal method of greatest concern to environmentalists involves the use of former quarries and mines as coal ash dumps. The site owners received a “beneficial use” waiver from the state so that they could use the ash as fill in their reclamation process. The waiver allows the sites to accept ash without mandatory groundwater monitoring to ensure toxins aren’t leaching off the site. They are also not mandated to install protective liners.
Tests at coal ash dumps in Iowa that do have protective liners that were analyzed by Plains Justice show toxins leaching out of the landfills, leading many to conclude the same is thing is taking place undetected at the unlined sites. Even the Iowa Department of Natural Resources told The Iowa Independent last year that contamination could be taking place at the sites, but without monitoring there is no way of knowing.
La Seur said from her reading it appears these sites — quarries in Cedar Rapids, Goose Lake and Waterloo, and a mine in Buffalo — would be considered surface impoundments, so regardless of what type of regulation the federal government mandates, the sites would have to remove the ash and install a protective liner. They would also have to begin groundwater monitoring.
Some fear, however, that the sites are considered dry landfills. In that instance, the sites will not have to install protective liners, only groundwater monitoring equipment.
Even if this is the case, though, the groundwater monitoring would ensure that if there was contamination it would be caught quickly and corrective action would begin, Lisa Evans, senior administrative counsel for Earthjustice told The Iowa Independent.
“While there is no blanket requirement to line old landfills or quarries, owners or operators would be required to take action if the groundwater monitoring indicates contamination,” Evans said. “So for Iowa’s quarries, this would supply protection from contamination of water supplies.”
Chad Stobbe, an environmental specialist with the Iowa DNR, told The Iowa Independent his department is reviewing EPA’s proposed approaches to “understand how these regulations will impact Iowa.” He then referred questions to the EPA.
According to the EPA’s proposed coal ash rules, a surface impoundment is defined as “a natural topographic depression, man-made excavation, or diked area formed primarily of earthen materials (although it may be lined with man-made materials), which is designed to hold an accumulation of [coal combustion residuals] containing free liquids.”
A landifll is defined as “a disposal facility or part of a facility where CCRs are placed in or on land.” It goes on to say that, “For purposes of this proposed rule, landfills also include piles, sand and gravel pits, quarries, and/or large scale fill operations. Sites that are excavated so that more coal ash can be used as fill are also considered CCR landfills.”
Cost vs. benefit
Nicole Molt, director of government relations for the Iowa Association of Business and Industry (ABI), a trade group that counts among its members the disposal-site owners and industries that utilize them, said during a previous interview that the cost of upgrading unlined, unmonitored sites to comply with stricter standards could range anywhere from $250,000 to $500,000 an acre. That cost would eventually have to be passed on to taxpayers, since most users of quarries and mines for coal ash disposal are municipally owned utilities and the state’s regent universities.
When contacted Tuesday, Molt said her organization was still reviewing the EPA’s 563-page proposal and could not comment on it immediately.
However, a study released last year by the Institute for Policy Integrity (IPI), a non-partisan think tank based in New York City, found the benefits of upgrading disposal sites would exceed the costs of tougher regulations by almost 10 to 1. The research focused mostly on coal ash ponds like the one that failed in Kingston, Tenn., in 2008. The costs for quarries to upgrade would be much lower than the costs for ponds, according Scott Holladay, an economist who researched the issue for IPI.
The EPA said it will choose between the regulatory options sometime after a 90-day comment period.