In 2013, League members passed a resolution calling on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to regulate coal ash as a hazardous waste. Coal ash – waste product created by burning coal – contains toxic heavy metals, including arsenic, lead, and mercury. This waste product is often stored in unlined ponds filled with millions of gallons of polluted water or in mounds of dry ash. The threat from coal ash gained attention in 2014 when one of Duke Energy’s coal ash storage ponds failed, poisoning the Dan River in North Carolina.
Unfortunately, the final rule issued by EPA in December 2014 does not regulate coal ash as hazardous waste and does not require coal ash storage ponds to close. However, the new rule is the first federal rule that regulates coal ash at all. The rule prevents new coal ash ponds from being located near waterways or sensitive areas and requires that new ponds be lined. It also requires existing, unlined coal ash ponds that are polluting groundwater to be dewatered and capped. Enforcement under the new rule can be accomplished through citizen or state lawsuits, assisted by new requirements for energy companies to disclose monitoring results.
Despite EPA’s designation of coal ash pollution as non-hazardous, politicians from coal producing states think the rule goes too far and don’t like that it can be enforced by states and citizens. These legislators are also unhappy that EPA could strengthen the rule later if it is not effective as written. They continue plans to override EPA’s rule with legislation of their own – legislation likely to include fewer protections for our waters and other natural resources.