EPA announces that cleaning up coal ash will be a top priority for enforcement

EPA acknowledges widespread noncompliance from coal-fired power plant owners.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently announced that coal ash will be an enforcement priority for the agency for the next four years as of October 2023, promising to conduct investigations and take action against coal ash facilities that are violating the law.

Every four years, the EPA selects enforcement and compliance priorities so that the agency and its state partners can prioritize resources to address the most serious and widespread environmental problems. The EPA’s National Enforcement and Compliance Initiatives for 2024-2027 include for the first time initiatives to mitigate climate change, address exposure to PFAS contamination, and protect communities from toxic coal ash.

This is welcome news for Earthjustice and our clients. Earthjustice represents communities across the U.S. that have fought for years to hold coal-fired power plant operators responsible for their reckless disposal and storage of coal ash. For decades, utilities disposed of coal ash — the hazardous substance left after burning coal for energy — by dumping it in unlined ponds and landfills. Across the US, coal ash dump sites are leaking dangerous levels of toxic substances.

Coal ash contains hazardous pollutants including arsenic, boron, cobalt, chromium, lead, lithium, mercury, molybdenum, radium, selenium, and other heavy metals. These have been linked to cancer, heart and thyroid disease, reproductive failure, and neurological harm. Industry is proceeding now, in violation of the federal rule, to close coal ash ponds with toxic ash in contact with groundwater and in floodplains, threatening drinking water and waterways. Utilities have failed to determine the extent of toxic contamination of groundwater, as required by the federal rule, and to clean up contaminated groundwater, which the rule requires.

In its announcement, the EPA acknowledged that noncompliance from coal-fired power plant owners is widespread and many utilities are not complying with current monitoring and testing requirements. Earthjustice and communities across the U.S. have fought not only for stronger protections that would apply to all coal ash dump sites, but also raised alarms at the way coal-fired power plant operators have ignored the law and evaded responsibility to contain and clean up coal ash. Last year, we released a report, Poisonous Coverup: The Widespread Failure of the Power Industry to Clean Up Coal Ash Dumps, detailing how power companies are illegally manipulating data and monitoring systems to avoid cleanup requirements and proposing inadequate cleanup strategies that will not restore groundwater quality.

Earlier this year we sent a letter signed by more than 100 organizations and community groups asking the EPA to prioritize coal ash enforcement. We are glad they listened, this announcement offers hope to hundreds of communities impacted by toxic coal ash.

The EPA acknowledged that neighborhoods located near coal ash facilities are often communities with multiple environmental justice concerns. “These communities are likely to face existing environmental burdens that put them at greater cumulative risk from the environmental impacts associated with proximity to coal ash landfills or impoundments, including harmful air pollution and threats to drinking water sources,” the memo to EPA regional administrators stated.

This EPA initiative on coal ash will focus on conducting investigations, particularly at coal ash facilities impacting overburdened communities; taking enforcement action at coal ash facilities that are violating the law; and protecting and cleaning up contaminated groundwater, surface water, and drinking water resources.

It is heartening to hear that the EPA will focus additional resources on enforcing coal ash safeguards. This is a critical move by the EPA to ensure that utilities leave communities with sites that benefit rather than harm their health, environment, and economic status.

Prioritizing CCR Rule enforcement ensures that the substantial resources of the EPA will mean real, widespread progress to reduce coal ash pollution. EPA said its coal ash initiative will focus on approximately 300 facilities nationwide that are responsible for approximately 775 coal ash units, view the Earthjustice map of coal ash dumpsites across the U.S. Earlier this year the EPA released a draft rule to address failures of the rule that left half of coal ash unregulated, settling a lawsuit between the agency and public interest groups, represented by Earthjustice. The proposed new rule would extend regulations to hundreds of legacy coal ash dumps. The EPA held a public hearing earlier this summer at which people testified in favor of stronger coal ash protections and shared their stories, asking the EPA to ‘do your job.’

As we move beyond coal power, we can’t leave a toxic mess behind.

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 Clean Energy Program uses the power of the law and the strength of partnership to accelerate the transition to 100% clean energy.