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Celebrating An Historic Agreement on Coal Ash


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30 January 2014, 9:02 AM
The long wait is over: EPA agrees to finalize waste rule this year
A rally in Asheville, NC, calling for strong protections against coal ash contamination of waterways.

Late yesterday, the Department of Justice on behalf of the EPA lodged a consent decree with the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia that requires the EPA to publish a final rule addressing the disposal of coal ash by Dec. 19, 2014. The settlement came as a result of a lawsuit brought by 10 public interest groups and the Moapa Band of Paiutes against the EPA for its failure to review and revise its regulations pertaining to coal ash. The settlement does not dictate the content of the final regulation, but it confirms that the agency will finalize a rule by a date certain after years of delay.

If there has ever been a time to celebrate a victory on coal ash over the last three decades, today is the day.

The Kingston, TN, coal ash spill. In 2008, residents all along the Emory River woke up to the tragedy of 1 billion gallons of toxic coal ash that spilled from the Tennessee Valley Authority's Kingston Fossil Plant. The spill covered 300 acres, destroyed homes, poisoned rivers and contaminated coves and residential drinking waters. (TVA)The Kingston coal ash spill in December 2008. (TVA Photo)

EPA’s coal ash rulemaking was triggered by the largest toxic waste spill in U.S. history when a billion gallons of coal ash burst through a dam at the TVA Kingston Fossil Plant in Roane County, Tennessee. While damage to health and the environment had been occurring for decades at hundreds of sites throughout the nation, the headline-making disaster brought a commitment in 2009 from then-Administrator Lisa Jackson to establish federal disposal standards within the year.

But, amazingly, the catastrophic collapse of the TVA dam was not enough to push EPA to complete its rulemaking. Only after Earthjustice and other public health and environmental groups sued did the EPA commit to a deadline for a final rule and break the logjam of delay and dangerous deferral.

This consent decree ends the inexcusable and destructive 30-year delay in establishing rules for safe disposal of the nation’s second largest industrial waste stream. No other industry in this country, save the mining industry, has a license to dump toxic waste in our water at the massive scale enjoyed by our coal-burning power plants. The industry estimates that they have generated 3 billion tons of coal ash since the beginning of the last century. Not an ounce has been subject to disposal regulations that ensure its safe, long-term disposal. This, we hope, will change in 2014.

While the consent decree sets an enforceable deadline for the publication of the coal ash rule, it does not dictate its content. The EPA still has discretion to finalize either of the two proposals it published in June 2010.

The benefits of a strong coal ash rule for our health and environment are immense—and this ruling comes none too soon to protect the air, water and safety of communities living near more than 1,000 massive coal ash impoundments, ponds, dry landfills and other coal ash dumpsites.

Known* cases of coal ash contamination and spills:

Red icon. Contaminated Site
Green icon. Spill
Black icon. Contaminated Site and Spill

* These cases of documented water contamination are likely to be only a small percentage of the coal ash-contaminated sites in the U.S. Most coal ash landfills and ponds do not conduct monitoring, so the majority of water contamination goes undetected. According to U.S. EPA, there are over 1,000 operating coal ash landfills and ponds and many hundreds of "retired" coal ash disposal sites.

Coal ash and sludge laden with toxic metals, including arsenic, chromium, lead, mercury and selenium, are dumped in unlined and unmonitored lagoons and landfills and stacked stories-high behind earthen dams without proper engineering, inspection or maintenance. In many states, where millions of tons of coal are burned for electricity, there are simply no regulations controlling the disposal of this toxic waste. For decades, communities have waited for protection from the waterborne and airborne chemicals that cause cancer, birth defects, neurological injury, and other diseases. The EPA made a very grave error when it failed to establish nationwide protections decades ago. The dumping of toxic ash nationwide has contaminated more than 200 rivers, streams, lakes and sources of underground drinking water.

In exchange for significant health, safety and environmental benefits, most power plants will pay a pittance. The EPA estimated that even under the most stringent rule, electricity prices would not rise more than one percent, even if all costs were passed on to the consumer. Both of EPA’s proposed rules, under subtitles C and D, will allow the continued operation of existing coal ash landfills, and both will require the eventual phase out of dangerous and leaking impoundments like the one that failed in Kingston, Tennessee. Those utilities that have managed their coal ash in the most dangerous, antiquated and irresponsible manner will have to make a larger investment to convert their dumping operations to safe practices. For utilities that invested in safer disposal practices, such as lined, engineered and monitored landfills, the cost of the rule will be negligible—even if the EPA regulates coal ash as a special waste under subtitle C.

The EPA’s primary statutory duty under RCRA is clear—to minimize the threat to human health and the environment from the disposal of solid waste. The agency’s final coal ash rule must meet these goals by phasing out dangerous coal ash ponds as soon as possible, establishing an enforceable baseline of engineering and disposal standards applicable in all states that protect both air and water, and establishing federal authority to ensure that such standards are timely instituted and effectively enforced. The coal ash rule must protect the nation’s most vulnerable communities and give all citizens a meaningful role in the siting of disposal facilities. Law, science, and sound public policy dictate that the EPA should finalize a subtitle C rule, regulating coal ash as a “special waste” under RCRA. It remains to be seen, however, whether considerations other than protection of health and the environment will take precedence in this politically charged rulemaking.

For now, we celebrate this historic agreement to finalize the rule by year’s end. A final rule marks a huge step forward for the health and safety of all American communities.

Learn more about coal ash through an interactive infographic, and see coal ash-related videos, photo essays and more at Coal Ash Contaminates Our Lives:

The Coal Ash Problem, presented by Earthjustice.

I'm glad the EPA will be required to deal with this issue. Thanks to Earthjustice for taking them to court and making this possible! Subtitle C sounds like the better of the 2 proposals the EPA must choose between. I look forward to hearing how we can urge them to make the right choice.

What are cinder blocks made of? For that matter, is there anything more or less useful that can be made of coal ash that will make it less hazardous than leaving coal ash lying around in heaps?

What are cinder blocks made of? For that matter, is there anything more or less useful that can be made of coal ash that will make it less hazardous than leaving coal ash lying around in heaps?

My family knows well the strangling of lungs over time that cannot be reversed. Black lung compensation is nil compared to the slow, determined death of that disease. My father lived a little longer than some others we knew since he was a mine shaft carpenter. We saw some struggle into death at a much younger age only because they were deep mine workers. Anthracite coal produced less residue than soft coal, but never the less it KILLS! Dumping the ash does damage undescribable; into the earth, trees don't grow, streams are polluted and the distruction keeps creeping into drinking water. STOP KILLING OUR PEOPLE AND OUR GREAT EARTH.

My family knows well the strangling of lungs over time that cannot be reversed. Black lung compensation is nil compared to the slow, determined death of that disease. My father lived a little longer than some others we knew since he was a mine shaft carpenter. We saw some struggle into death at a much younger age only because they were deep mine workers. Anthracite coal produced less residue than soft coal, but never the less it KILLS! Dumping the ash does damage undescribable; into the earth, trees don't grow, streams are polluted and the distruction keeps creeping into drinking water. STOP KILLING OUR PEOPLE AND OUR GREAT EARTH.

My family knows well the strangling of lungs over time that cannot be reversed. Black lung compensation is nil compared to the slow, determined death of that disease. My father lived a little longer than some others we knew since he was a mine shaft carpenter. We saw some struggle into death at a much younger age only because they were deep mine workers. Anthracite coal produced less residue than soft coal, but never the less it KILLS! Dumping the ash does damage undescribable; into the earth, trees don't grow, streams are polluted and the distruction keeps creeping into drinking water. STOP KILLING OUR PEOPLE AND OUR GREAT EARTH.

The mindless pursuit of profit - digitized capitalism - has run amok! The "winning" social-game oriented leaders that choose cynical pessimism must be banished by the conscientious, responsible, respectful and educated leaders that can steer human evolution, and civility, back toward the balance of justice. This is in the direction of fairness for the future that starts in the present. If democratically sponsored organizations, or profit-seeking watchdogs, aren't choosing this path, it's because choices are beyond the comprehension of an electorates education. If we put more resources toward educating and less toward financing, we'd have more decisions like the EPA has taken and less long-term consequences.

I can only comment that finally EPA has performed its' duty. Coal ash is a toxic substance and should have always been treated as such. To cause human and animal families and the environment such pain and suffering who live in or above coal deposits or ash piles is monstrous.

Keep working, EPA. This is LONG overdue. Make it as tough as you possibly can! And then make it tougher.

This is a good start. But why did it take so long for this hazard to be acknowledged.

We are polluting our world-water one waterway a time.It appears that only the public must pay for the removal of their garbage.The corporations ,especially the energy corporations,send the bill for any environmental contamination to the public and the congress give them subsidies-welfare.Don't you in the world,our children,your children are getting the environmental bill for our failure to act

Please continue the noble & worthy fight to keep toxic substances from polluting & destroying the planet.

I have a hard time believing this story- especially the conclusion that now we can celebrate because the EPA has consented to 1 of 2 possible solutions that they have suggested. How many more years will we need to wait until this is really cleaned up. I see by the map provided that a lot of the sites are surrounding Washington D.C. I would think this would make our representatives and Senators, eager to see that we obTain the best solution we can.

We've waited 50 years already for this - how much longer do we need to wait. How much more damage will be done in the meantime?

How can we move this along faster?

I, for one, find this whole story disgusting. The EPA has not done what it should have done, yet no one is urging them to move faster? How many other such projects are still unresolved?
what can we do to move the EPA to do its work in a timely manner?

I live in Danville, VA and the city claims the water is safe to drink. Coal ash has been spilled into the Dan River, turning it grey. the Duke power plant in Eden NC was fine last year for not moving the coal ash because the structure was not sound. I'm scared to let my kids drink a glass of filtered water.

I AGREE WITH EVELYN. THIS IS TAKING WAY TOO LONG AND THE DANGERS ACCUMULATE AS WE WAIT1

I AGREE WITH EVELYN. THIS IS TAKING WAY TOO LONG AND THE DANGERS ACCUMULATE AS WE WAIT1

I have a hard time believing this story- especially the conclusion that now we can celebrate because the EPA has consented to 1 of 2 possible solutions that they have suggested. How many more years will we need to wait until this is really cleaned up. I see by the map provided that a lot of the sites are surrounding Washington D.C. I would think this would make our representatives and Senators, eager to see that we obTain the best solution we can.

We've waited 50 years already for this - how much longer do we need to wait. How much more damage will be done in the meantime?

How can we move this along faster?

I, for one, find this whole story disgusting. The EPA has not done what it should have done, yet no one is urging them to move faster? How many other such projects are still unresolved?
what can we do to move the EPA to do its work in a timely manner?

I urge you to take action to keep our rivers and lakes clean from Coal Ash.

Thank you for all your work to protect our water supply from coal waste. Please keep up the pressure until we convert to clean energy.
Springfield, IL

Keep our planet clean of toxic waste in any way, shape or form....lets remember, its NOT just us but those who come AFTER US, who have to live with a toxic environment!

This is a good step in the right direction. My only concern is why did it take so long? I also hope that the regulations are strong enough so even local authorities in the so-called red states cannot circumvent them.

Finally a voice for the victims of coal ash
Contamination, spills.
Profit over people in industry's that turn such
Huge returns for the investors. At known and
future costs to those living near these sites.

I APPLAUDE YOU FOR YOUR FORTITUDE AND PERSERVERANCE IN ACCOMPLISHING THIS MOST WORTHY ENDEAVOR! MAY GOD CONTINUE TO BUILD AN ARMY OF RESPECTABLE CITIZENS WHO HAVE THE WILL, APPTITUDE, AND HEALTHY CONCIENCE TO PRESERVE AND PROTECT THAT WHICH GOD HAS SO GENEROUSLY ENTRUSTED TO US! .

I APPLAUDE YOU FOR YOUR FORTITUDE AND PERSERVERANCE IN ACCOMPLISHING THIS MOST WORTHY ENDEAVOR! MAY GOD CONTINUE TO BUILD AN ARMY OF RESPECTABLE CITIZENS WHO HAVE THE WILL, APPTITUDE, AND HEALTHY CONCIENCE TO PRESERVE AND PROTECT THAT WHICH GOD HAS SO GENEROUSLY ENTRUSTED TO US! .

Florida is not only the "sunshine state" but also the wind,rain,lake and river state. I live near the Curtis Stanton coal plant in Orlando Fl.. I've complained about the MOUNTAIN of coal waste stored open to the elements. I've been told this "mountain" is safe. I live on the Econlockhatchee river which is within a few miles of this "mountain". I will no longer eat the fish from this river. The econlockhatchee river wetlands is a beautiful area which is being used as a pollution filter for the area. I am hopeful there will be an effort to control this coal waste which is destroying the environment of central Florida.

Stop this madness

Do work!

Stop dumping toxic ash.

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