Wednesday, 5 May 2010

EPA Proposes Competing Approaches to Regulate Coal-Ash Waste

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said it would pursue tighter controls on the disposal of coal ash from power plants, following a December 2008 spill that sent a billion gallons of wet ash slopping over 300 acres in Tennessee.
But the agency stopped short of declaring coal ash a hazardous waste, in a temporary victory for the utility industry.
The regulation of coal-ash disposal has pitted utility companies concerned over the cost and complexity of eliminating wet-ash storage against health and environmental advocates who say arsenic, selenium and other contaminants in coal ash are a threat to human health and the environment. The two sides disagree on whether the waste material should be considered hazardous.
The EPA didn't take a stance on whether to regulate coal ash as hazardous waste, instead offering that approach as one of two possibilities. The hazardous-waste approach would put enforcement powers in the hands of federal and state officials, creating disposal restrictions and effectively phasing out the use of ash ponds. The second proposal would put in place new restrictions, but enforcement would come through lawsuits by states and individuals, the EPA said.
"In the course of developing these proposals, it became clear that there are people who feel very strongly about one or the other," said EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson during a press briefing.
The EPA estimates the cost of the hazardous-waste and nonhazardous-waste approaches at $20 billion and $8 billion, respectively. The EPA won't actually refer to coal ash as hazardous under either approach. That's because industry groups have raised concerns the terminology could hurt the reuse of the waste material in such products as cement and drywall.
The issue of coal-ash waste was the subject of 48 meetings since last fall between the staff of President Barack Obama's regulatory czar, Cass Sunstein, and industry groups, environmental advocates and others. The EPA's announcement Tuesday fueled the ongoing divide. A utility-industry group in a statement said regulation of coal ash as a nonhazardous waste alongside new federal standards for ash pond safety would be the only "prudent" course for the EPA.
"Adoption of more stringent regulation—including regulating coal combustion byproducts as hazardous waste or mandating closure of certain types of ash-management facilities—will drive up costs for our customers without providing a commensurate health or environmental benefit," said Jim Roewer, executive director of the Utility Solid Waste Activities Group, in a statement.
Environmental and health groups say hazardous-waste regulations are essential to ensure federal officials can track and enforce standards for coal-ash facilities.
The EPA's "inclusion of an option to regulate coal ash as hazardous waste is an important first step," said Trip Van Noppen, executive director of Earthjustice, in a statement. "The next important step will be to maintain this position in the face of inevitably misguided claims by polluters that the sky will fall."
The federal agency will take public comment on how to handle the waste from coal-fired generators and eventually issue final rules. —Siobhan Hughes contributed to this article.
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