EPA takes steps to protect groundwater from coal ash contamination

Jan. 13, 2022
The recent actions include proposing decisions on requests for extensions to the current deadline for initiating closure of unlined CCR surface impoundments.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently announced several steps it is taking to hold facilities accountable for controlling and cleaning up the contamination created by decades of coal ash disposal. Coal combustion residuals (CCR or coal ash), a byproduct of burning coal in coal-fired power plants, contains contaminants like mercury, cadmium and arsenic that without proper management can pollute waterways, groundwater, drinking water and the air.

The recent actions include:

  • Proposing decisions on requests for extensions to the current deadline for initiating closure of unlined CCR surface impoundments.
  • Putting several facilities on notice regarding their obligations to comply with CCR regulations.
  • Laying out plans for future regulatory actions to ensure coal ash impoundments meet strong environmental and safety standards.

Addressing requests for extensions to CCR surface impoundment closure deadlines

EPA’s regulations required most of the approximately 500 unlined coal ash surface impoundments nationwide to stop receiving waste and begin closure by April 2021. The regulations outlined a process for facilities to apply for two types of extensions to the closure deadline.

The proposed determinations re-state EPA’s consistently held position that surface impoundments or landfills cannot be closed with coal ash in contact with groundwater. Limiting the contact between coal ash and groundwater after closure is critical to minimizing releases of contaminants into the environment and will help ensure communities near these facilities have access to safe water for drinking and recreation.

Bringing facilities into compliance

EPA is also taking action to notify facilities of their compliance obligations for several facilities where the agency has information concerning the possible presence of issues that could impact health and the environment. Concerns outlined in separate letters include improper groundwater monitoring, insufficient cleanup information and the regulation of inactive surface impoundments. EPA is also ensuring facilities comply with the current CCR regulations by working with state partners to investigate compliance concerns at coal ash facilities across the country.

The EPA will focus on compliance at facilities that intend to close surface impoundments with coal ash in contact with groundwater and facilities with surface impoundments that warrant further groundwater investigation, including facilities that have used an alternate source demonstration, which is when a facility identifies another possible source of contamination.

Future regulatory efforts

Moving forward, EPA will improve the current rules by finalizing a federal permitting program for the disposal of coal ash and establishing regulations for legacy coal ash surface impoundments. EPA will also continue its review of state-level CCR program applications to ensure they are as protective as federal regulations.

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