The Environmental Protection Agency violated its own ethics policies in failing to disclose known risks of Coal Combustion Residuals on a website that promoted their beneficial use, even as the agency was seeking to regulate them, the EPA Office of Inspector General has concluded.
A newly released OIG “Early Warning Report” reprimands EPA for posting misleading and incomplete information on its Coal Combustion Products Partnership web site, which the agency has used since 2001 to promote the beneficial use of CCRs.
CCR Proposed Rule
The disclosures come amid a highly charged public comment period for the EPA’s Proposed Rule for Disposal of Coal Combustion Residuals [CCRs] from Electric Utilities. The proposed rule, published June 21 in the Federal Register, has played to packed public hearings since August. The comment period closes Nov. 19.
The proposed rule followed the accidental release of 5.4 million cubic yards of coal ash sludge from a containment dike at a Kingston, TN, power plant in December 2008. The measure addresses regulation of fly ash, bottom ash, boiler (coal) slag, and flue gas desulfurization sludge from coal-burning power plants.
At issue for the protective and marine coatings industry is beneficial use of coal slag as an abrasive.
The proposed rule outlines two possible approaches to CCR under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). One would regulate CCRs destined for disposal as special waste under Subtitle C and create a comprehensive program of federally enforceable requirements for waste management and disposal. The other would continue to manage CCRs as non-hazardous waste under Subtitle D, but establish specific performance standards for waste management facilities receiving CCRs.
In its proposed rule, EPA “showed that environmental risks and damage can be associated with the large-scale placement of unencapsulated CCRs,” the Inspector General’s report notes.
The proposed rule says unencapsulated use of CCRs has “raised concerns and merit closer attention” and “may result in environmental contamination, such as leaching of heavy metals into drinking water sources.”
The proposed rule identifies “seven cases involving large-scale placement, under the guise of beneficial use, of unencapsulated CCRs, in which damage to human health or the environment had been demonstrated,” OIG said.
‘An Incomplete Picture’
And yet, the EPA’s CCPP website, a partnership of more than 170 private and public members, told a different story, the Inspector General said. There, EPA ignored its own conclusions about the risk of CCRs, “did not make the seven damage cases readily accessible,” and even gave the appearance of commercial endorsements, OIG said.
The site “did not contain risk information consistent with that in EPA's proposed rule,” the inspectors’ report said. “Discussion of the damage cases that have proven environmental or human health damage from beneficial uses was also missing....”
The result was “an incomplete picture regarding actual damage and potential risks that can result from large-scale placement of CCRs,” OIG said.
Appearance of Endorsement
Moreover, the report said, the website contained material “that gave the appearance that EPA endorses commercial products,” which EPA ethics policies and communications guidelines prohibit.
“We identified nine of 23 case studies on the website that reference commercial products made with CCRs or patented business technologies,” OIG said. “All 23 of the studies were marked with EPA’s official logo, but none had the required disclaimer stating that EPA does not endorse the commercial products.”
The website said the case studies were “intended to be illustrations of coal combustion product applications that the agency believes can be beneficial to the environment.”
The case studies were submitted by industry and academia, not produced by EPA. However, they lacked EPA disclaimers and contained the EPA logo. EPA policies prohibit the use of the EPA logo in connection with the promotion of non-government-produced goods or services.
Content Goes Dark
EPA removed the content of the web site at the Inspector General's insistence on June 23. “While the agency continues to support safe and protective beneficial reuse of coal combustion residues, the C2P2 program webpages have been removed while the program is being re-evaluated,” EPA says on the site.
However, the inspector general said, documents relevant to the rulemaking are still available in the docket and remain “available for public searches, information and education.”
It called on EPA to identify “the breakdowns in management controls that allowed actions prohibited by EPA ethics policies to occur and implement controls to establish accountability.”
EPA must provide a written response to the report within 90 calendar days. The response, with OIG’s comments, will be posted on the OIG’s website.
The full report is available here.