Drawing an Arbitrary Line in the Coal Ash

When is hazardous coal ash not considered hazardous?

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When is hazardous coal ash not considered hazardous? According to the Environmental Protection Agency, when you dump it in a landfill as opposed to a pond. This approach is currently being floated by the EPA in its plans to regulate coal ash later this year. Coal ash—the waste left over after coal is burned at coal-fired power plants—is full of dangerously high levels of arsenic, lead, mercury, cadmium and other hazardous metals. Cancer rates skyrocket near coal ash dumps that have leaked into drinking water supplies.

As the one-year anniversary of the Kingston coal ash spill approaches (December 22), the EPA has been working hard to prepare the first ever federal regulations of coal ash. But newspapers are reporting that the Government Accountability Office issued a report last week that indicates EPA’s plans aren’t the strongest safeguards against this toxic threat.

It seems that the EPA is considering calling coal ash hazardous when it’s stored in ponds, and not hazardous when it’s stored in landfills. So what’s the big deal? The focus is on the word, "hazardous." Under the law, waste regarded as hazardous is treated with much greater scrutiny and thus, better protections. Dumping coal ash in a pond usually means it’s wet; when it’s in a landfill, it’s dry. But the spill in Tennessee last year happened at a so-called "landfill," so the lines distinguishing the two are blurry, to say the least.

Our attorney and resident coal ash expert Lisa Evans said in the Tennesseean, "We would not think that would be a protective scheme, with the many cases where dry disposal has caused contamination of groundwater and surface water. Both (wet ash and dry ash) pose a threat to human health and the environment so it doesn’t make sense to create that dichotomy."

Industry doesn’t want the hazardous designation at all, and we’re certain the residents living near coal ash landfills want their health protected just as much as people living near coal ash ponds. To create an unnecessary dichotomy just doesn’t make sense. EPA plans to propose their rules governing coal ash disposal this December, and we’ll be keeping you updated on what the agency decides to do, and what you can do to help.

Jared was the head coach of Earthjustice's advocacy campaign team from 2004 to 2014.

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.