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The long road to coal-ash regulation

Even as the White House, under President Bush in 2001, envisioned 1,300 new electric power plants to be built in two decades, most of them using coal, the Environmental Protection Agency worried about harm to waterways from this source.
Coal plants daily dispose into rivers, streams, lakes, ash-slurry lagoons and groundwater tables millions of gallons of waste-water loaded with toxic pollutants like arsenic, lead, mercury, selenium and many others.
At least 5.5 billion pounds of the pollutants make it into waterways every year. They have caused over 160 water bodies not to meet state water quality standards and fish from 185 water bodies to be unsafe to eat. Nearly 400 public drinking water sources are degraded, and the pollutants’ discharge occurs within five miles of a drinking water intake for 40 percent of all plants.
Of the dangerous impoundments holding coal ash from power plants the EPA warned in a draft report, in 2007, that the risk in nearby communities of getting cancer is 10,000 times greater than government safety standards allow.
Although the scope of this problem had been a longstanding concern for EPA, the relevant standards had not been updated in over 30 years. As reported by the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy recently, nearly 70 percent of power plant water pollution permits have no limits on how much heavy metals and other toxic pollution they can discharge.
When the Tennessee Valley Authority’s coal ash dam at the Kingston power plant broke after heavy rains in December 2008, pouring over a billion gallons of coal-ash sludge into the Emory River and destroying two dozen homes, the costly disaster finally became a call for action. In April 2013, EPA issued new water-pollution standards for power plants, which are to be finalized in September 2015.
For the first time, SACE indicates, the new coal-ash rule will set technology-based limits on the amount of toxic pollutants permitted to be dumped into waterways by power plants. Groundwater monitoring is among the commendable requirements in the rule, for many current coal-ash sites, along with siting precautions for new facilities and eventual, public accessibility of compliance-and-risk related information.
The rule’s several possible options for final adoption differ significantly in the amount of pollution that would be controlled. The most stringent ones would require rigorous treatment of the coal sludge and eliminate almost all toxic discharges. Its adoption would reduce the number of receiving waters that exceed water quality, wildlife and human health criteria by up to 93 percent.
At cost of less than one percent of annual revenue for most coal plants, SACE reports, a longstanding serious problem for public and environmental health would begin to be fixed nationwide, under the coal-ash rule.
Yet, since EPA did not classify the “coal combustion residuals” as hazardous waste, as citizens had advised, the new rule’s enforcement will not have federal authority behind it. Its effectiveness in cleaning up coal-waste degraded waters and preventing more Kingston-style disasters will depend greatly on how the utilities themselves, and the states, carry forward its implementation.