The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on July 29 finalized several changes to the regulations for disposal of coal combustion residuals (CCRs), or coal ash, from electric utilities. The changes include giving utilities more time to design clean-up and closure plans for their coal ash storage sites.
The changes stem from an opinion issued Aug. 21, 2018, by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit in the case of Utility Solid Waste Activities Group v. EPA, (USWAG). That decision vacated the provisions of the 2015 rule that permitted unlined impoundments to continue receiving coal ash unless they leaked and the provisions of the 2015 rule that classified “clay-lined,” or compacted-soil lined, impoundments as lined.
The EPA’s actions on Wednesday change that. The rule will now require all unlined surface impoundments to retrofit or close, not just those that have detected groundwater contamination above regulatory levels. It also changes the classification of clay-lined surface impoundments from “lined” to “unlined,” which means that formerly defined clay-lined surface impoundments need to be retrofitted or closed.
Additionally, the EPA is establishing a revised date by which unlined surface impoundments must cease receiving waste and initiate closure, following its reconsideration of those dates in light of the court’s decision. The original date by which CCR surface impoundments were required to cease receipt of waste was October 31, 2020. According to a pre-published version of a Federal Register document signed by EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler, the new deadlines will be as noted in the table below.
The EPA is also finalizing amendments proposed on Aug. 14, 2019, to the requirements for the annual groundwater monitoring and corrective action report, and the requirements for the publicly accessible CCR internet sites.
“Today’s action makes changes to the closure regulations for coal ash storage that enhance protections for public health while giving electric utilities enough time to retrofit or replace unlined impoundment ponds,” Wheeler said in a statement. “The public will also be better informed as EPA makes facility groundwater monitoring data more accessible and understandable.”
Several utilities have worked in recent years to clean up and close their coal ash impoundments. The EPA in announcing the changes Wednesday said new reporting data shows more unlined and more leaking landfills than were modeled in a 2015 analysis. The agency said utilities using those landfills are incurring higher cleanup costs, and said those costs should be lessened since compliance deadlines have been extended.
The EPA said in a statement that even though changes are being made to the final rule, “the regulations in place since 2015 to detect, assess, and remediate impacts on groundwater from CCR in surface impoundments and landfills are in place and implementation remains on schedule. The 2015 requirements for facility inspection, monitoring, recordkeeping and reporting requirements are also unchanged except for two enhancements to public access to information. EPA’s updates with this final rule keep the major protections and requirements of the 2015 rule in place while making changes to address litigation and apply lessons learned to ensure smoother implementation of the rule.”
—Aaron Larson is POWER’s executive editor (@AaronL_Power, @POWERmagazine).