A final rule issued today by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to regulate coal combustion residuals (CCRs) from coal power plants clarifies technical requirements for coal ash landfills and surface impoundments nationwide under Subtitle D of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), the nation’s primary law for regulating solid waste.
The final rule is markedly different from a 2010-proposed rule and takes into account more than 450,000 comments, testimony from eight public hearings, and three notices soliciting comment on new data and analyses, the EPA said.
Among its major attributes is that the rule calls for the closure of surface impoundments and landfills that fail to meet engineering and structural standards, and regular inspections of the structural safety of surface impoundments. New surface impoundments and landfills will also be restricted to locations not deemed “sensitive,” such as wetlands and earthquake zones.
The rules also call for use of fugitive dust controls to reduce windblown coal ash dust, and liner barriers for new units and proper closure of surface impoundments and landfills that will no longer receive CCRs.
The final rule means that states must now revise their Solid Waste Management Plans (SWMPs) and submit these revisions to the EPA for approval. “A revised and approved SWMP will signal EPA’s opinion that the state SWMP meets the federal criteria,” the EPA said.
A Delayed Rule
A federal court forced the EPA to promulgate the rule governing coal ash after environmental groups sued the agency in April 2012 to address what they said are the “serious and widespread risks that unsafe disposal of coal combustion waste or ‘coal ash’ poses to human health and environment.” The EPA’s failure to act on “well-documented risks associated with irresponsible disposal of coal ash” violates RCRA, the groups argued. Earlier this year, the EPA and the environmental groups reached a consent decree that required the EPA to issue a revision of its RCRA Subtitle D rules no later than Dec. 19, 2014.
The EPA had in June 2010 published alternative proposed coal ash rules under RCRA in large part due to the December 2008 failure of a coal ash impoundment at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s (TVA’s) Kingston coal-fired power plant. That disaster released 5.4 million cubic yards of fly ash that inundated several homes and contaminated the Emory River in Tennessee. One of the EPA’s alternatives would have regulated coal ash as a “special” (but not necessarily hazardous) waste using a classification authorized under Subtitle C of RCRA. The other alternative—the one chosen for the final rule issued today—uses Subtitle D of RCRA and classifies the material as a solid, but not hazardous or special, waste.
The Edison Electric Institute (EEI), representing investor-owned utilities, issued a statement regarding the rule that said, in part, “While we are still reviewing the final rule in detail, EPA made the proper determination that coal ash should be regulated as a non-hazardous waste in a way that will protect human health and the environment. However, we still have concerns with the self-implementing nature of the rule and the way in which EPA has left the door open to one day regulate coal ash as a hazardous waste, creating additional uncertainty for electric utilities.”
Final EPA Rule Supports Coal Ash Recycling
The final rule also supports coal ash recycling by distinguishing beneficial use from disposal. The American Coal Ash Association (ACAA)—a group that touts the environmentally sound use of coal ash as an alternative to disposal—said it was “confident” the agency would choose a Subtitle D “non-hazardous” regulatory framework. “That conclusion will be supported by decades of scientific study of the material characteristics of coal ash,” said Thomas H. Adams, executive director of the ACAA.
According to the ACAA’s recently released “Production and Use Survey,” 51.4 million tons of coal combustion products were beneficially used in 2013—down from 51.9 million tons in 2012 and well below the 2008 peak of 60.6 million tons. The amount of fly ash used in concrete increased only slightly to 12.3 million tons, up by 577,705 tons over 2012, but still below 12.6 million tons in 2008. “The irony of the lengthy debate over coal ash disposal regulations is that the debate is causing more ash to be disposed,” said Adams. “If the past five years had simply remained equal with 2008’s utilization, we would have seen 26.4 million tons less coal ash deposited in landfills and impoundments.”
—Sonal Patel, associate editor (@POWERmagazine, @sonalcpatel)