A Spooky Premise

What if EPA’s coal ash rule doesn’t close unlined lagoons? Wet dumping is the cheapest way, in the short-term, to dispose of toxic coal ash—but it is also the most dangerous.

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The utility industry is speaking with one voice. According to comments filed last month with the Environmental Protection Agency, the Utility Solid Waste Activities Group (USWAG) is crying out for a coal ash rule that would allow forever-dumping of toxic waste in unlined, leaking and potentially unstable coal ash impoundments.

Each year, the coal industry saves boatloads of cash by dumping millions of tons of toxic waste in more than 1,000 lagoons, and they’d like to keep it that way. Wet dumping is the cheapest way, in the short-term, to dispose of toxic ash, but it is also the most dangerous. Terminating this dumping would require plants to close, stabilize and monitor coal ash lagoons that contain millions of tons of toxic waste and which have already poisoned underlying aquifers. To the coal industry, this is a frightening financial prospect.

Thanks to this week’s ruling by the D.C. District Court, an EPA coal ash rule is inevitable. The content of the agency’s rule, however, remains a mystery. The industry pick is the option called “D Prime,” which would allow unlined coal ash impoundments to operate indefinitely. In simple terms, the “D Prime” option primarily protects the pockets of the utility industry—not the health and safety of communities near coal ash lagoons.

Yet the EPA has no legal or rational justification whatsoever for allowing dangerous unlined impoundments to continue to be packed with toxic waste. The lessons of of recent lawsuits in North Carolina, South Carolina, Pennsylvania, Georgia, Montana and Nevada are abundantly clear—the pollutants from these black-bottomed lagoons are real and deadly, and they pose a clear and present danger to neighboring communities.

The only acceptable path forward is closure of lagoons and conversion to safer dry disposal of coal ash in engineered landfills. Anything short of this is a trick and a mockery out of this week’s precedential court decision.

Specializing in hazardous waste law, Lisa is an expert on coal ash, a toxic byproduct of burning coal that burdens communities around the nation.

Earthjustice’s Washington, D.C., office works at the federal level to prevent air and water pollution, combat climate change, and protect natural areas. We also work with communities in the Mid-Atlantic region and elsewhere to address severe local environmental health problems, including exposures to dangerous air contaminants in toxic hot spots, sewage backups and overflows, chemical disasters, and contamination of drinking water. The D.C. office has been in operation since 1978.