The Obama administration on Friday announced the first federal regulations for disposal of coal ash from power plants in an attempt to shield the environment from the toxic substance.

The new rule from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sets structural integrity standards for all existing and new disposal sites to reduce the chances that they will leak or break. It also requires that new coal ash ponds be lined and not located in sensitive areas like wetlands and earthquake zones.

{mosads}Existing ash ponds will be subject to new inspection and monitoring standards in an attempt to prevent leaks into groundwater and catastrophic spills, and restrictions to reduce air pollution from ash sites. 

“Today’s rule is a smart, very large step forward,” EPA head Gina McCarthy told reporters. “It will help prevent pollution of our air and water, protect our families’ health and provide industry with commonsense, consistent and clear national standards for coal ash disposal.”

Utilities that operate plants will have to post a wide range of information online about their coal ash facilities.

But the rule does not allow for any federal enforcement, relying instead on states and on lawsuits brought by the public. It also does not cover ash storage sites at plants that have been closed.

The EPA also decided not to go as far as classifying coal ash as hazardous, saving utilities billions of dollars in compliance costs and disappointing environmentalists, who said that move would provide the best possible protection for waterways, wildlife and groundwater.

Coal ash can contain substances like chromium, arsenic, mercury and lead; it is the second most common waste in the country, behind household trash.

Under the new standards, coal ash will be subject to disposal rules similar to trash, under Subtitle D of the Resources Recovery and Conservation Act.

Environmentalists criticized the rule as too weak. Greens and health advocates had pushed for hazardous waste standards, arguing that the toxic minerals in coal ash make it the obvious conclusion.

“While EPA and the Obama administration have taken a modest first step by introducing some protections on the disposal of coal ash, they do not go far enough to protect families from this toxic pollution,” Mary Anne Hitt, director of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, said in a statement.

“We welcome federal efforts on this issue, but Sierra Club has significant concerns about what has been omitted from these protections and how they will be enforced in states that have historically had poor track records on coal ash disposal,” she said.

The Waterkeeper Alliance was more direct.

“How could EPA conclude that coal ash, which is loaded with carcinogens including arsenic, cadmium, and chromium, is not a hazardous waste?” Marc Yaggi, executive director of the Waterkeeper Alliance, said in a statement.

“These toxins are contaminating the land and water around hundreds of coal ash dumps across the country. Today’s rule falls far short of what is needed to protect communities and ensure clean water for all Americans.”

McCarthy rebutted those criticisms, saying that the rule is strong enough to protect communities from coal ash.

“This rule does essentially what we hoped to accomplish, regardless of what subtitle we regulate under,” she said. “We took a very close look at the data. The decision to regulate under subtitle D is what the full record, which is the available data in our risk analysis, actually supports.”

The EPA started seriously looking into coal ash rules shortly after President Obama took office in 2009.

A catastrophic ash spill that destroyed communities near Kingston, Tenn., in 2008 brought the issue to the forefront, and a spill earlier this year into the Dan River in North Carolina again highlighted the issue.

But the Duke Energy plant responsible for the Dan River spill had been closed two years prior, so it would not have been covered under the new rule at the time of the spill.

Electric utilities, which own the plants that would be subject to the new rule, applauded the EPA’s decision.

“The agency correctly found that the characteristics of coal ash did not justify the use of hazardous waste authority,” said Scott Segal, director of the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council, said in a statement.

“Further, using anything other than Subtitle D could have endangered affordable and reliable electric power, undermined the beneficial reuse of ash, and overloaded the hazardous waste management system in the United States.”

Still, congressional Republicans said the EPA went too far.

Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), incoming chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, blasted the rule along with Sen.-elect Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), who will serve alongside him on the environment committee.

“While the rule may not be as bad as some had feared, it will make states and utility companies vulnerable to new regulatory costs and expensive litigation,” the lawmakers said in a joint statement, adding that the rule could cost $22.8 billion and 64,700 jobs.

“It is nothing more than a continuation of the president’s war on fossil fuels and another attack on America’s most abundant, affordable and reliable source of energy: coal.”

Inhofe and Capito promised to “ensure legislatively” that states, municipalities and consumers are protected from environmental policies that hurt coal.

— This story was updated at 3:08 p.m.

Tags coal ash Gina McCarthy Shelley Moore Capito

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