Biden administration takes action on toxic coal ash plaguing Kentucky and Indiana

·6 min read

The Biden administration is making its first significant move toward corralling lingering and widespread problems with toxic ash from coal-fired power plants, one of the nation’s most prominent environmental health legacies from more than a century of coal-fired electricity generation.

The agency’s action could have major implications in states such as Kentucky, Indiana and Tennessee, each of which has been wrestling with the consequences of huge volumes of waste products left behind by burning coal.

It is also where decisions are being made on whether coal ash can be safely entombed where it was once-storied in watery pits, or whether the waste should be removed and sent to modern, dry landfills with liner systems and other measures to protect groundwater.

In 2015, the EPA under the Obama administration put forth the first national rules on coal ash, which required most of the nation’s approximately 500 unlined coal ash surface impoundments to stop receiving waste and begin closing by April 2021.

Those ash dumps, laced with contaminants like mercury, cadmium and arsenic, often pollute groundwater and send particulate air pollution into nearby communities.

While the Trump administration allowed utilities to request extensions, the Biden EPA announced Tuesday it is taking action on nine of 57 extension applications filed.

The agency denied three, including one filed by the Clifty Power plant in Madison, Indiana. It approved one, at East Kentucky Power’s Spurlock power plant in Maysville, Kentucky, and it found four incomplete and one ineligible.

More determinations, EPA officials said, are coming.

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EPA deems retired Gallagher plant in Indiana out of compliance

The EPA also said it was putting several power plants on notice regarding their obligations to comply with rules, and it was working on plans for future changes to regulations aimed at making sure coal ash dumps meet strong environmental and safety standards.

One of those plants to get a letter saying it was out of compliance was the now-retired Gallagher plant in New Albany, owned by Duke Energy, which had stored millions of tons of coal ash near the banks of the Ohio River across from western Louisville.

The plant, whose twin stacks sent air pollution to Louisville for six decades, prompting prolonged regulatory battles, has two surface impoundments with ash sitting in 20 feet of groundwater, according to EPA. If Duke wants to avoid removing the ash, it will have to demonstrate how it can keep it in place without causing contaminants in the ash from getting into the groundwater, EPA said.

Duke Energy told the IndyStar it believes its current work was done in full compliance with regulations and industry standards. Still, "we have a shared interest with federal and state regulators to ensure customers and communities continue to remain protected in the future," said utility spokeswoman Angeline Protogere.

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In the agency’s actions, environmental lawyers who have been fighting for coal ash regulations saw a reason for optimism.

Abel Russ, a senior attorney with the group Environmental Integrity Project, said EPA’s proposed actions show it understands utilities are not properly monitoring groundwater in ways that can preclude cleanup requirements.

“It’s a start of a process where we hope to see enforcement from multiple levels,” said Russ, the lead author of a 2019 report that used utility records to determine there were unsafe levels of toxic contaminants in groundwater linked to more than nine out of every 10 coal-fired power plants.

Tennessee Valley Authority riddled with leaky coal ash pits

The Southern Environmental Law Center, which has litigated and won coal ash cleanup cases in states like North Carolina and South Carolina, said EPA’s determinations set a precedent for compliance nationwide, including in Tennessee, where the law center says tens of millions of tons of coal ash remains in leaky coal ash pits at Tennessee Valley Authority power plants.

“The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has stepped up to offer communities hope and to protect clean water, rivers, and drinking water supplies from the threats posed by coal ash,” said Frank Holleman, a senior attorney at the law center. “With EPA’s leadership, we now have the opportunity to put coal ash pollution and catastrophes behind us and to restore common-sense protections for communities across the South who have lived with coal ash contamination for far too long.”

The Edison Electric Institute, a trade group that represents investor-owned utilities, has long maintained that electric companies are managing coal ash “in ways that put safety first, protect the environment, minimize impacts to the community, and manage costs for customers.”

Institute spokesman Brian Reil did not immediately return requests for comment on the EPA actions. Nor did Jim Roewer, the executive director of the Utility Solid Waste Activities Group, an association of more than 131 utilities.

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Utilities have argued they can remove the surface water from a coal ash pit and cover it up to protect the environment.

One of the coal-ash ponds at the Gallagher power plant in New Albany, Ind. Industry officials say the settling ponds are designed to keep pollution from getting into the environment.
One of the coal-ash ponds at the Gallagher power plant in New Albany, Ind. Industry officials say the settling ponds are designed to keep pollution from getting into the environment.

In announcing its proposed determinations, the agency said it was affirming its view that ash disposal pits or landfills cannot be closed with ash in contact with groundwater. Limiting contact between coal ash and groundwater after closure is critical to minimizing releases of contaminants into the environment and contamination of water for drinking and recreation, it stated.

“I’ve seen first-hand how coal ash contamination can hurt people and communities,” EPA administrator Michael Regan said in announcing Tuesday’s action. “Coal ash surface impoundments and landfills must operate and close in a manner that protects public health and the environment. Today’s actions will help us protect communities and hold facilities accountable.”

What is coal ash?

Coal ash and other combustion wastes are what remains after coal is burned to generate electricity.

The mercury, cadmium and arsenic contained in waste piles can pollute the air and groundwater and are associated with cancer and other health ailments. Over the last century, hundreds of power plants produced billions of tons of ash and other combustion wastes, including scrubber sludge.

Lisa Evans, a senior attorney specializing in hazardous waste law at Earthjustice, a national environmental law organization, described the new EPA proposed actions, taken together, as a potential “game-changer.”

She said they signal that the agency intends to use enforcement powers it has not previously employed to crack down on what she described as “blatant noncompliance” by utilities that has left what often are communities of color exposed to toxic pollution.

Still, Evans noted the EPA announcement does not address the problem of coal ash that was dumped and buried before the 2015 EPA regulations went into effect — perhaps as much as half of all the coal ash ever produced.

Inside Climate News is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news outlet that covers climate, energy and the environment.

This article originally appeared on Louisville Courier Journal: Biden EPA targets toxic coal ash plaguing Kentucky, Indiana, Tennessee

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