EPA to Regulate Coal Ash

by | May 5, 2010

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The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is proposing national rules to safely dispose and manage coal ash from coal-fired power plants. The proposed rules would also support beneficial reuse or recycling of coal ash in the manufacture of materials such as cement, concrete and asphalt.

Coal ash, the byproduct of coal combustion at power plants, is disposed of in liquid form at large surface impoundments and in solid form at landfills. The residuals contain contaminants like mercury, cadmium and arsenic, which are associated with cancer and various other serious health effects, says the EPA.

EPA’s risk assessment shows that these contaminants can leach into groundwater and migrate to drinking water sources. The agency has identified at least 71 cases where coal ash has contaminated nearby ground- or surface water, reports the New York Times.

In October last year, the EPA first announced it was considering the regulation of coal ash as toxic waste, several months after a spill of 1.1 billion gallons of coal ash slurry at the Kingston power plant operated by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), which resulted in hundreds of millions of dollars in clean-up costs and environmental damage.

In January, there were reports that utilities were planning to fight the regulation because it would add billions of dollars of additional costs. Other industries were concerned that a ruling would impact the use of coal ash in construction materials such as cement mix and wallboard.

EPA’s proposal calls for protective controls, such as liners and groundwater monitoring, at new landfills. Existing surface impoundments will also require liners, although there will be strong incentives to transition to safer landfills, which store coal ash in dry form, according to the EPA.

The EPA is seeking comment on two approaches to address the risks of coal ash management — one option creates a comprehensive program of federally enforceable requirements for waste management and disposal, while the other gives EPA authority to set performance standards for waste management facilities and would be enforced primarily through citizen suits.

The EPA estimates that the first option would cost the industry $1.5 billion a year, while the second would cost $600 million a year, reports the New York Times.

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