By Patrick Crow, Washington Correspondent
After some delay, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has proposed a rule to ensure that coal-fired power plants dispose of coal ash safely.
Power plants typically store the combustion byproduct in liquid form at large surface impoundments or in solid form at landfills.
The rule was a reaction to a massive coal ash spill in East Tennessee 18 months ago. A dam failed at Tennessee Valley Authority facility and spilled more than a billion gallons of sludge into the Emory and Clinch rivers. The spill displaced residents, required hundreds of millions of dollars in cleanup costs, and caused widespread environmental damage (see March-April column).
EPA administrator Lisa Jackson said, “We’re proposing strong steps to address the serious risk of groundwater contamination and threats to drinking water and we’re also putting in place stronger safeguards against structural failures of coal ash impoundments.”
EPA said the ash contains contaminants like mercury, cadmium, and arsenic, which are associated with cancer and other diseases. It said without proper protections, the contaminants can leach into groundwater and can migrate to drinking water sources, posing significant health public concerns.
The agency said the proposed rule would encourage the use of landfills, which store coal ash in dry form, rather than liquid impoundments. New landfills would have to use protective controls such as liners and groundwater monitoring. Existing impoundments would be subject to more inspections and also would have to use liners.
EPA proposed two options to regulate coal ash: to either regulate it as hazardous waste or as a non-hazardous waste. The proposed rule would allow the continued use of recycled coal ash in products such as concrete, cement, and wallboard.
The agency said there are almost 900 coal ash landfills and surface impoundments in the U.S., mostly near power plants. Since the Tennessee spill, EPA has been inspecting impoundments to ensure their structural integrity.
Environmental groups urged EPA to regulate coal ash as a hazardous waste. Trip Van Noppen, executive director of Earthjustice, said, “The science is clear that coal ash is hazardous waste, and we are confident this administration will stand by its commitment to follow the science in its policy decisions.”
Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), the senior Republican on the Committee on Environment and Public Works, said the proposed regulation “could prove unworkable, and even environmentally counterproductive.” He said the rule would restrict many uses of recycled coal ash.
Earlier, EPA proposed guidelines to clarify and strengthen environmental permitting requirements for Appalachian mountaintop removal and other surface coal mining projects.
The agency said the guidelines use the best available science and set clear benchmarks for preventing significant and irreversible damage to Appalachian watersheds.
It said nearly 2,000 miles of Appalachian headwater streams have been buried by mountaintop mining. The process moves large volumes of earth and rock overlying coal seams, filling nearby valleys.
Administrator Jackson said the objective of the guidelines is not to end coal mining -- just coal mining pollution.
She said, “We will continue to work with all stakeholders to find a way forward that follows the science and the law. Getting this right is important to Americans who rely on affordable coal to power homes and businesses, as well as coal communities that count on jobs and a livable environment, both during mining and after coal companies move to other sites.”
EPA also issued a study on unacceptable levels of conductivity (a measure of the level of salt in the water) that threaten stream life near coal operations. It said the maximum conductivity should be 500 microSiemens per centimeter, a level roughly five times above normal levels.
The Natural Resources Defense Council said, “With every ton of coal extracted, another 20-25 tons of mining waste is disposed of in so-called valley fills. Strict enforcement of scientific requirements in the CWA is a much-needed step in the right direction.”
The Sierra Club said other federal agencies -- including the Army Corps of Engineers and the Office of Surface Mining -- also should act to better protect Appalachian water resources.
EPA plans an expansive study on the impact that hydraulic fracturing of natural gas wells might have on water quality and public health.
Gas producers use hydraulic fracturing to inject water, chemicals, or other agents under pressure into geologic zones to help the methane flow to the well bore. As use of fracturing has spread, so have concerns about its impact on ground water and surface water quality.
The agency plans to spend $1.9 million for the study this fiscal year and will request more funding in fiscal 2011.
Sen. Inhofe defended the technique. He said it has been used safely for decades, has not contaminated groundwater, and is regulated by the states.
He said, “The administration also must be mindful of the fact that fracturing has helped strengthen America’s energy security by allowing responsible production of domestic natural gas, resulting in the creation of millions of good-paying jobs. So it must tread carefully here to ensure that this safe production technique can continue to be used to meet our growing energy needs.”
In other Washington news:
-- EPA will restrict or ban operations at Arch Coal Inc.’s Spruce No. 1 surface mine in Logan County, W. Va., one of the largest mountaintop removal operations proposed for Appalachia. The project was permitted in 2007 and subsequently delayed by litigation. EPA said the mine would bury seven miles of streams and degrade the water quality in others.
-- It has approved a CWA permit for Oxford Mining Co.’s proposed Kaiser Mathias surface coal mine in Tuscarawas County, Ohio. EPA required changes to reduce environmental and water quality impacts and repair environmental damage caused by previous mining in the watershed.
-- The agency said Upland Wings Inc., of Sullivan, Mo., would pay a $138,016 fine to resolve alleged CWA violations at its iron ore operation in Washington County, Mo. EPA said the company conducted unpermitted dredging and discharges of pollutants into Mary’s Creek in March 2007.
-- It said Norfolk Southern Railway Co. will pay a $4 million penalty to resolve alleged CWA violations for a 2005 chlorine spill in Graniteville, S.C. A tank car punctured in a derailment released chlorine gas that killed nine people.
-- EPA fined Kinross DeLamar Mining Co. $35,000 for a lack of stormwater controls at its DeLamar Mine in Southwest Idaho. The agency said its inspectors observed the discharge of water from a borrow pit during an inspection in 2009. The water eventually flowed to the Owyhee River.
-- The agency said NuStar Pipeline Operating Partnership LP, of San Antonio, Tex., would pay a $450,000 fine to for failing to plan for environmental accidents at eight oil storage terminals in Iowa, Kansas and Nebraska. It also will spend $768,000 to install tank monitoring and alarm systems at terminals.
-- The Water Environment Research Foundation was seeking research proposals to help small wastewater treatment plants (less than 4.5 million gallons per day) produce biogas.