Energy & Environment

EPA takes steps toward addressing toxic coal residue

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The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is taking its first steps to limit toxic coal waste from seeping into groundwater. 

The agency is proposing to deny requests from three facilities in Indiana, Ohio and Iowa to extend an April 2021 deadline to start closing their ponds containing the waste, known as coal ash.

The EPA has also proposed to allow one facility in Kentucky to extend its closure deadline until Nov. 30 if it fixes groundwater monitoring issues.

Coal ash is the residue created when power plants burn coal. It contains toxic materials like mercury, cadmium and arsenic and can pollute waterways if not properly dealt with. The residue is often stored in ponds.

According to the EPA, there are about 500 coal ash ponds in the country that are unlined — meaning they lack a certain protection to prevent leakage. The Obama administration previously put forward the country’s first regulations for coal ash disposal in 2015.

In addition to the proposed decisions, the EPA said Tuesday that it will send letters to coal ash facilities that it says have issues including poor monitoring and insufficient cleanup information.

The agency said in a statement that it would put these companies “on notice” and investigate compliance concerns at facilities that store coal ash across the country. 

The agency sent four such letters, including one that detailed “potential violations” that will likely require the agency to levy a penalty.

That letter, to the Evergy Tecumseh Energy Center in Kansas, detailed what it described as “missing, erroneous, or incomplete elements.”

In another letter to AES Puerto Rico, the agency detailed “deficiencies and lack of required details” that it said must be addressed, including what it described as insufficient information on whether a proposed liner will be effective in preventing groundwater contamination.

Evergy spokesperson Gina Penzig said in an email that the company is “committed to compliance with all environmental laws and regulations” and said the company looks “forward to continuing the dialog on this important matter.”

AES spokesperson Gail Chalef said the company was reviewing the letter. 

Lisa Evans, senior counsel at environmental group Earthjustice, said the EPA’s latest move demonstrates it is taking action to make utilities comply with regulations for the substance.

“It’s really an action that’s much bigger than the individual decisions,” she said. “EPA, has not, to date, since the rule was promulgated in 2015, has not enforced the rule. It’s stunning that there have been no enforcement actions when in fact there is widespread, substantial noncompliance.”

In 2020, the Trump administration gave facilities the option to apply for extensions of the deadline for unlined ponds to stop receiving waste. 

The EPA has since determined that it received 52 complete applications for deadline extensions, and said it would make more decisions in the coming months. 

The agency also said in a statement on Tuesday that in the future it plans to “improve” current coal ash rules by putting together a federal permitting program for disposal of the substance and creating regulations for legacy ponds.

A 2019 analysis from environmental groups found that 91 percent of coal plants have polluted groundwater to unsafe levels.

Updated: 5:01 p.m.

Tags Coal Environmental Protection Agency EPA

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