The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is committed to issuing proposed regulations for the management of coal combustion waste by utilities by the year’s end, a senior agency official told the House Transportation and Infrastructure committee Thursday. Rules could include tightened restrictions on contaminants in wet scrubber wastewater streams.

Barry Breen, acting assistant administrator for the EPA’s Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response, said that as a result of the massive coal ash spill at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Kingston plant in December 2008, the agency had embarked on a “major effort to assess the stability” of similar impoundments and other management units containing wet-handled coal combustion waste.

“This assessment has three phases: information gathering through an information request letter; site visits or independent assessments of other state or federal regulatory agency inspection reports; and final reports and appropriate follow up,” he said in testimony (PDF) before the Subcommittee on Water Resources and the Environment on Thursday. “Currently, we are still in the information gathering phase and plan to begin field work in May of this year.”

The purpose the hearing was to gather more information about the disposal of coal combustion waste and water quality. According to the EPA, about 131 million tons of coal combustion residuals—including 71 million tons of fly ash, 20 million tons of bottom ash and boiler slag, and 40 million tons of flue gas desulfurization (FGD) material—were generated in the U.S. in 2007. Of this, approximately 36% was disposed of in landfills, 21% was disposed of in surface impoundments, 38% was beneficially reused, and 5% was used as minefill.

Coal combustion waste is considered a nonhazardous (solid waste) substance under the 1976 Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) and is exempt from federal hazardous waste management regulations under that statute. Though the EPA has weighed the issue several times since then, in May 2000 it issued a regulatory determination concluding that coal waste from power plants did not need regulation as a hazardous waste under Subtitle C of RCRA.

Coal waste disposed of or stored in landfills or surface impoundments is subject to some federal water pollution control regulation requirements, however. A storage or disposal unit that has an outfall that discharges to surface water is required to meet the effluent guidelines established in the Clean Water Act (CWA) and as specified in a facility’s National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit. These requirements could become stricter by the end of 2009, Breen said.

The effluent limitation guidelines for steam electric power plants were last issued in 1982 (40 CFR part 423). Since 2005—as a result of a finding that the regulated steam power industry “ranked second in discharges of toxic and nonconventional pollutants”—the agency has been conducting an “intensive review” of wastewater discharges from coal-fired power plants to determine whether new Clean Water Act regulations are needed, he said.

The study has included wastewater sampling and information-gathering visits to more than 40 facilities and submission of a questionnaire to nine utilities owning coal-fired facilities. Its data collection efforts have been primarily focusing on treatment technologies for wastewater generated by pollution controls such as FGD systems, which many facilities scrambled to install following the implementation of agency clean air rules.
The study is still in progress. Upon its completion this year, the agency will determine “whether the current national effluent limitations guidelines for power plants need to be updated,” Breen said.

The agency’s 2006 interim study report “Interim Detailed Study Report for the Steam Electric Power Generating Point Source Category,” (PDF) hints that the agency will likely tighten restrictions. In the report, for example, the EPA found that boron and cadmium levels in FGD leachate ranged from being in compliance with drinking water to being 10 times higher. Selenium levels in FGD material leachate, meanwhile, were found to have ranged from drinking water standards to levels at least 60 times higher.

John McManus, vice president for American Electric Power’s Environmental Services, who also testified (PDF) at Thursday’s hearing, said that the power industry has taken steps since the December 2008 Kingston coal ash spill to ensure safe management of coal combustion waste, and that it supports “steps to enhance current requirements and oversight.” He stressed, however, that regulating coal ash as a hazardous waste “would have a devastating impact on the beneficial use of these materials.”

McManus noted that the industry has for three years actively assisted the EPA in its study of industry wastewater discharges, “providing information on wastewater characterization and technology performance, and recommending sampling techniques and analytical methods.”

“Our industry will continue to engage EPA on all aspects of this study,” he said. He added, however, that the current process should continue in “a transparent and scientifically valid manner.”

Sources: EPA, House Committee for Transportation and Infrastructure, AEP