May 28, 2024

Last week the EPA released a series of long-awaited rules intended to reduce the carbon the US emits when generating electricity. The rules primarily target existing coal plants and new natural gas facilities, which in many cases require dramatic reductions in emissions that would not be possible without an unprecedented deployment of carbon capture. (The new EPA proposals are part of a ongoing spate of federal regulatory actions which must be issued by May 22 to reduce the possibility that they will be rolled back if Republican Donald Trump defeats President Biden in November’s election.)

The EPA’s new power sector rules have been widely scrutinized for their potential impact on the nation’s electric utilities, which have recently drawn up plans to expand natural gas capacity in response to growing demand for electricity promised by new industrial facilities, AI-enabled data centers become , and electric vehicle adoption. But last week’s rules also included significant new controls on the pollution generated by the nation’s aging fleet of coal-fired power plants — as well as the toxins left behind by the many that have already closed — including a proposal that would close a longstanding loophole in federal regulations control over the cleanup of coal ash, a toxic waste byproduct of the coal power process.

The new rule builds on a landmark 2015 rule that prohibits coal ash from being permanently stored in places where it comes into contact with groundwater. It was intended to reform the widespread practice of creating so-called coal ash ponds where the toxin is stored in a wet slurry. While the EPA at the time applied the rule only to coal plants in active use, the new rule will require the cleanup of hundreds of “legacy” coal ash ponds.

“EPA’s new rule aims to clean up coal plants once and for all,” Lisa Evans, a senior attorney at Earthjustice, said in a press briefing last week. “Coal plants will have to monitor each of these toxic landfills, stop the leaking of hazardous chemicals, and clean up groundwater when contamination is found. This is a watershed moment. For decades, utilities have fought coal ash regulation every step of the way with legislation, lawsuits and lobbying.”

Chris Bowers, an attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center, noted that coal ash cleanup is an important environmental justice issue, in part because coal plants are disproportionately located near poor communities and people of color; about 78 percent of all Black Americans live within 30 miles of a coal-fired power plant.

“Coal ash continues to be one of the largest, if not the largest, per-volume source of industrial solid waste generated annually. Huge amounts are generated because we’re still burning coal for energy,” Bowers said.

But whether or not the new coal ash regulation brings relief to communities struggling with groundwater contamination may well depend on political will and the agency’s appetite to enforce its own rules — especially when that means giving up the authority of states that have their own ideas have about how strict, should ignore. the rules are actually.

Environmental advocates say that enforcement of the earlier coal ash rule set a troubling precedent: Rather than implement the 2015 rule, some states and utilities are effectively waiting out the clock on the Biden administration in hopes that a potential Trump administration will be friendlier to the power industry. Some utilities are suing the EPA in federal court over interpretations of the rule, while state regulators in Georgia and Alabama have issued permits that the EPA says are in violation of the requirement — leaving the Biden EPA with a limited window within which to make a ruling. where utilities are allowed to dump coal ash.

“It’s been a struggle among the power industry to try to close the chapter on this and do as little as possible,” Bowers said.

Coal plants are usually built near bodies of water because they use turbines powered by steam that must be continuously cooled. For decades, power plants across America dumped coal ash into pits dug conveniently between the plant and a nearby river or lake. Frank Holleman, coordinator of the Southern Environmental Law Center’s regional coal ash initiative, told Grist that this storage method would normally be unacceptable for any other type of waste. If the 2015 rules had been introduced earlier, the ash would have had to be moved to a landfill designed to prevent the waste from leaching into its surroundings.

An aerial view of a coal-fired power plant in Juliette, Georgia.
An aerial view of a coal-fired power plant in Juliette, Georgia.
Gautama Mehta

“This is the way all other types of waste, including municipal garbage, are stored, but instead of doing this, these utilities – which have immense financial resources and immense engineering expertise – have unlined pits between their coal plants and the neighboring water body dug. ,” Holleman said.

“When you dig a hole next to a river or lake, you’ll hit the water table quickly,” added Holleman. This means that the water is at risk of being contaminated by various toxins, because coal ash contains high concentrations of elements such as arsenic, lead, mercury and selenium, which are dangerous to human and animal health.

Research has long established these dangers to groundwater, but it took two disastrous spills — one at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Kingston Fossil coal plant in 2008, and a second at Duke Energy’s Dan River Steam Station in North Carolina in 2014 – for the EPA to issue. his landmark 2015 rule. That rule gave the EPA control over the permitting process for coal ash removal, but it also allowed individual states to apply for delegated authority to administer their own coal ash programs, provided their standards for the clearance is at least as restrictive as the federal government.

The 2015 rule went largely unchallenged by utilities until the EPA, under President Biden, stepped up enforcement. Now, in Georgia and Alabama, the federal government is clashing with state agencies over its interpretation of the 2015 rule — leaving environmental advocates worried that last week’s expansion of that rule to cover legacy dams could suffer the same fate. Meanwhile, a group of utilities is suing the EPA in the DC Circuit Court over its increased enforcement of the 2015 rule, which the utilities say amounts to an actual change to the rule itself.

Georgia was one of a handful of states to get its own permitting program. Fletcher Sams, executive director of the Altamaha Riverkeeper, a conservation organization in Georgia, has spent the past five years advocating for residents of the town of Juliette, home to what was once the country’s largest coal plant. The state’s dominant utility company plans to close a massive coal ash dam there that has come into contact with groundwater; residents claim that the dam previously contaminated drinking water drawn from wells in the town, making local residents sick.

Sams told Grist he is “very excited about new rules for old dams that will regulate them the same as 2015 dams. However, if they’re going to enforce it in Georgia the way they’re enforcing the 2015 rule, they’re not worth the paper they’re printed on.”

Georgia’s state environmental agency recently approved a dam closure plan at another coal plant in northwest Georgia, where 1.1 million tons of coal ash will be permanently stored in an unlined pit. The EPA issued a letter declared in February that this plan violated the federal standard, but the agency has not yet directly intervened to violate the state’s authority.

In Alabama, however, the EPA took the more drastic step last summer of proposing to deny the state’s request for a delegated program similar to Georgia’s because of the state’s planned approval of coal ash permits that the 2015 rule violation. (A spokesman for the Alabama Department of Environmental Management said the EPA’s denial was “unwarranted” and that the state met and continues to meet federal requirements in its coal ash permit, which it said are “protective for human health and the environment.”)

The debate between the EPA and the utilities that oppose it — as well as the state of Georgia — depends on the definition of the word “infiltration.” The EPA and environmental advocates argue that the 2015 rule prohibits a coal ash storage site from being infiltrated by water in any direction, while utilities and the Georgia Environmental Protection Division say the word “infiltration” refers only to rainwater seeping into coal ash from above , rather than groundwater from below.

At sites where coal ash is in direct contact with groundwater, the EPA expects utilities to dig it up and install a liner that separates it from the water table below. But many utilities only want to put a “cap” above the ash ponds to prevent rainwater infiltration – and nothing below.

Editor’s note: Earthjustice is an advertiser with Grist. Advertisers play no role in Grist’s editorial decisions.

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