Although twice chastised by its own auditor for promoting the use of Coal Combustion Residuals without sufficient research, the Environmental Protection Agency has no plan to evaluate the risks anytime soon.
That is the essence of a terse “Response and Corrective Action” issued June 16 by the EPA’s Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response (OSWER) to the Office of Inspector General regarding its March 23 report, EPA Promoted the Use of Coal Ash Products with Incomplete Risk Information.
That sharply critical report alleged inadequate testing, lack of information, and lack of due diligence on EPA’s part in promoting CCR beneficial use without fully determining its risks.
“EPA’s application of risk assessment, risk screening, and leachate testing and modeling was significantly limited in scope and applicability,” OIG reported. “Without proper protections, CCR contaminants can leach into ground water and migrate to drinking water sources, posing significant public health concerns.”
Images: EPA Office of Inspector General
|Beneficial use of CCRs includes blasting grit, paint manufacturing, structural fill and concrete products, according to EPA.|
EPA relied on state programs to manage risks associated with CCR beneficial use and thus promoted those uses “based on incomplete information, without knowing the risks associated with each type of beneficial use,” OIG said.
Policy Conflict Cited
A preliminary OIG “Early Warning Report” report, released in October 2010, concluded that the EPA did not “follow accepted and standard practices in determining the safety of the 15 categories of CCR beneficial uses it promoted” through its Coal Combustion Products Partnership, or C2P2, program.
Auditors said the C2P2 program website conflicted with EPA’s policies and appeared to endorse certain products. EPA was forced to pull the site down.
In the March report, auditors urged EPA to:
• “Define and implement risk evaluation practices to determine the safety of the CCR beneficial uses EPA promotes”; and
• “Determine if further EPA action is warranted to address historical CCR structural fill applications, based on comment on the proposed rule and other information available to EPA.”
EPA: Rule Will Delay Study
In his two-paragraph response to the 32-page audit, Assistant Administrator Mathy Stanislaus says that OSWER “concurs with both recommendations and agrees that protection of human health and the environment is a critical prerequisite to promoting the beneficial use of coal combustion residuals.”
To that end, Stanislaus says, EPA has replaced its “previous national promotional efforts under the C2P2 program” with “an effort to identify a process to determine if a beneficial use of CCR is safe.”
But that effort is not likely to begin until after the agency concludes its long-running process to develop a rule governing CCR disposal, Stanislaus indicated.
EPA still has not finalized its June 2010 Proposed Rule for Disposal of Coal Combustion Residuals [CCRs] from Electric Utilities, which was subject of an extensive public hearing process in multiple cities last fall. The comment period for the rule closed Nov. 19, and EPA is not saying anything about progress on the rule or when a final version might be released.
‘We Do Not Yet Have a Timeline’
In his response, Stanislaus said because EPA was “still evaluating the comments received” on the CCR rule, “we do not yet have a timeline for developing the evaluation process regarding the beneficial use of CCRs.”
Despite the lack of research, EPA has stuck by the safety of CCR since 2000, when it issued a Regulatory Determination saying it had “not identified any beneficial uses that are likely to present significant risks to human health or the environment” and had identified “no documented cases of damage to human health or the environment.”
CCRs “do not warrant regulation as hazardous waste,” the agency concluded.
The CCR disposal measure now proposed addresses regulation of fly ash, bottom ash, boiler (coal) slag, and flue gas desulfurization sludge from coal-burning power plants.
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 and create a comprehensive program of federally enforceable requirements for waste management and disposal. The other would develop standards to manage CCRs as non-hazardous waste and establish performance standards for waste facilities receiving them.
‘The Middle Finger’
Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a national alliance of local, state and federal resource professionals that has criticized EPA on the CCR issue, lambasted Stanislaus’s response to the Inspector General.
“EPA just gave its IG the middle finger,” said PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, adding that most all of the safety information on coal ash in products comes from the industry. “Thanks to EPA, Congress and the public have no idea which, if any, applications of coal ash are safe or environmentally benign.”
Staff Concerns Reported
OIG investigative materials PEER obtained under the Freedom of Information Act allege that EPA staff safety concerns about coal ash have been “steamrolled” and ignored. In one Investigative Activity Report from 2009, an environmental engineer who had been with EPA since 1988 said she and colleagues in the Office of Solid Waste’s Economics, Methods and Risk Analysis Division (EMRAD) had raised “strong objections to what was written in an EPA publication that was commonly referred to as the Green Book,” which dealt with the beneficial use of coal ash in highways.
The engineer, Becky Cuthbertson, “was concerned that the book was not peer reviewed and there weren’t sufficient studies done to support the claims of the beneficial uses listed in the publication”—concerns that the group felt were “essentially ignored and ‘steamrolled,’” the investigative report said.
The report cites other staff concerns raised about similar documents.
“Cuthbertson didn’t know why her concerns about some of the beneficial uses of CCW were not addressed in full,” the report says. “There was a big push at the time to recycle CCW.” An assistant OSWER administrator at the time “wrote a memorandum, which included … extolling the recycling of CCW.”