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EPA Sued Over Coal Rule Revisions

Tuesday, December 1, 2020

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Last week, a coalition of nine environmental groups announced that they were suing the United States Environmental Protection Agency over finalized revisions made to coal ash and coal plant wastewater regulations.

Specifically, the lawsuits point out that the regulation’s extension of the life of giant pits of toxic coal sludge risk contamination of nearby water sources and that weakened rules regarding wastewater from coal-fired plants would be bad for water quality.

Waste Stream Rules

In 2015, the EPA published a set of requirements or the management of coal combustion residuals or coal ash (CRR) in landfills and impoundments. The requirements for CRR established corrective action, closure and post closure, technical standards, and inspection, monitoring, recordkeeping and reporting for a variety of waste streams, specifically, fly ash, bottom ash, boiler slag and flue gas desulfurization materials generated from coal-fired electric utilities.

Finalized back in July, the EPA announced that it had made several changes to the regulations for CRR to implement the court’s vacatur of certain closure requirements as well as adding provisions that enhance the public’s access to information about the management of coal ash at electric utilities.

“Today’s action makes changes to the closure regulations for coal ash storage that enhance protections for public health while giving electric utilities enough time to retrofit or replace unlined impoundment ponds,” said EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler at the time. “The public will also be better informed as EPA makes facility groundwater monitoring data more accessible and understandable.”

jimfeng / Getty Images

Last week, a coalition of nine environmental groups announced that they were suing the United States Environmental Protection Agency over finalized revisions made to coal ash and coal plant wastewater regulations.

According to the EPA, the final rule requires all unlined surface impoundments to retrofit or close, not just those that have detected groundwater contamination above regulatory levels. The rule also changes the classification of compacted-soil lined or “clay-lined” surface impoundments from “lined” to “unlined,” which means that formerly defined clay-lined surface impoundments are no longer considered lined surface impoundments and will require retrofitting or to be closed.

Any unlined surface impoundments and units that failed the aquifer location restriction must cease receiving waste and initiate closure or retrofit by April 11, 2021. However, the EPA is working to finalize revisions regarding alternative closure provisions that would grant certain facilities additional time to develop alternative capacity to manage their waste streams before they stop receiving waste and close their surface impoundments.

Since publishing the revisions, the EPA has also revised the annual groundwater monitoring and corrective action report requirements to make the data easier for the public to understand and evaluate, including a requirement to summarize the results in an executive summary, in addition to revising the CCR website requirements to ensure that relevant facility information required by the regulations is immediately available to the public.

The following month, the EPA issued another finalized revision, this time focusing on effluent guidelines and standards for “steam electric” power plants. The final rule revised a 2015 Obama-era regulation.

“President Trump and his Administration understand that protecting our water quality doesn’t have to destroy jobs and raise electric rates” said U.S. Congressman David McKinley (R-West Virginia) at the time.

“These revisions to the Steam Electric Effluent Limitation Guidelines will actually reduce more pollution the Obama-era rule, while reducing compliance costs and allowing for more flexibility. This is just the latest example of the Trump Administration’s commitment to promoting American energy while protecting public health.”

The agency’s final Steam Electric Reconsideration rule revises requirements for two waste streams from steam electric power plants: flue gas desulfurization wastewater and bottom ash transport water, but also changes:

  • Technology-basis for treatment of FGD wastewater and BA transport water;
  • Establishes new compliance dates;
  • Revises the voluntary incentives program for FGD wastewater; and
  • Adds subcategories for high-flow units, low-utilization units and those that will cease the combustion of coal by 2028 and finalizing requirements that are tailored to facilities in these subcategories.

The rule gives facilities until the end of 2025 to be compliant and exempts facilities that are expected to close by 2028.

The Lawsuits

Starting at the beginning of November, a coalition of nine environmental groups announced that they were suing the EPA over weakened regulations governing wastewater from coal-fired power plants. The lawsuit refers to the revised rule published in August.

“Trump's EPA is propping up a dying industry that has put our health at risk for decades, and fueled the climate crisis, by giving them a free pass to continue to dump deadly pollution into our water. This rule puts the most vulnerable communities at further risk,” said Jennifer Peters, Clean Water Action’s water programs director, in a statement.

By the end of the month, the environmental groups announced a second lawsuit, this one regarding July’s coal ash revisions, which now allow for more than 400 coal ash pits—where coal residue is mixed with liquid and stored in open-air pits—across the nation to stay open as late as 2038.

In a statement announcing the suit, Earthjustice attorney Lisa Evans said, “Right now toxic chemicals are poisoning water across the country because of dirty coal plants. The Trump administration acted illegally when it gave coal plants many more years to dump toxic waste in pits that contaminate waterways and drinking water sources. Instead of acting in the best interests of the American people, the administration once again put the coal power industry first.”

In reviewing monitored data, Earthjustice and the Environmental Integrity Project found that 91% of coal ash ponds were leaking toxins in excess of what the EPA allows, and in turn, were contaminating groundwater and drinking wells in nearby communities.

The EPA would not comment to The Hill regarding either suit.


Tagged categories: Coal ash; Coal Combustion Residuals; Coal Combustion Residuals; Environmental Controls; Environmental Protection Agency (EPA); EPA; Lawsuits; NA; North America; Power Plants; Water/Wastewater

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