EPA Issues First-ever Coal Ash Rule to Protect Public Health and the Environment

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) took a significant step forward Friday when it finalized long-delayed standards for coal ash. The new regulations establish some safeguards to detect and prevent releases of toxic waste from the nation’s more than 1400 coal ash waste dumps, most of which are currently leaking into water sources.

Unsafe disposal of coal ash has contaminated more than 200 rivers, lakes, streams and sources of underground drinking water in 37 states. Several coal ash waste ponds in Georgia are considered to be at high risk for dam failure and/or leaking into nearby water resources including Plant Branch in Milledgville. Coal ash dump sites also omit dangerous quantities of toxic dust into the air that can harm neighboring communities.

Both the Ogeechee and Oconee River basins are already stressed and mercury-laden, and coal-fired Plant Washington will store tons of the toxic waste, including mercury, directly above our groundwater resources, and just 1/4 mile from Williamson Swamp Creek. The tons of coal ash waste, riddled with heavy metals, that Plant Washington will create will be stored in an open landfill on a liner that the Georgia Environmental Protection Agency says will only last approximately 30 years.

Local citizens have been asking what will happen to the waste when the liner degrades. The heavy metals in coal ash waste never go away. They contaminate fish, wildlife and water quality when they come into contact with soil and water. Washington EMC Board members have already spent $1Million of the co-op member’s money on Plant Washington despite the ongoing concerns that member’s have raised about the dangers of coal ash waste being stored in our community.

The EPA’s new rule leaves critical gaps in protection of health and the environment.

EPA overlooked the science in deciding not to designate coal ash as hazardous waste despite the many deadly toxins and carcinogens it contains.The rule leaves enforcement of the regulations entirely to individual states, if they choose, or to citizens.  Consequently the rule cannot guarantee that communities are protected, particularly in states that are unwilling or unable to require utilities to abide by the federal guidelines. By law, EPA cannot enforce these rules, nor are they able to play an oversight role.  In addition, the regulations don’t include federal oversight of dam safety nor require states to adopt state programs to permit dump sites and protect local communities. The rules for coal ash remain less stringent than the federal rules applicable to ordinary household waste.

The public interest groups that sued the EPA over its failure to regulate coal ash, are planning to keep up the fight for critical public health and environmental protection.

Coal ash regulations were proposed in 2010 following the largest toxic waste spill in U.S. history in Kingston, Tenn., when one billion gallons of coal ash sludge destroyed 300 acres and dozens of homes. But pressure from the power industry and coal ash users forced the EPA to delay finalizing the proposed rule.

In 2012, ten public interest groups, including FACE partners the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy and the Sierra Club, along with an Indian tribe sued the EPA in federal court to obtain a court-ordered deadline. In 2013, a consent decree was lodged in federal court that set December 19, 2014 as the deadline for the EPA’s final rule.

Plant Washington’s developer has yet to announce power purchase agreements for its long delayed project, significant funding for the multi-billion dollar project, its ability to meet critical emission requirements, as well as its ability to meet other permit stipulations.

Friday’s announcement, while not as rigorous as health professionals, faith leaders, elected officials, and environmentalists had urged, is still an important step towards protecting the health of our families in addition to our natural resources.

Friday’s coal ash regulation announcement does not make Plant Washington’s future any more certain or financially viable.