By: Rebecca Beitsch, The Hill
November 24, 2020
A coalition of nine environmental groups is suing the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) over a rule that extends the life of giant pits of toxic coal sludge, risking contamination of nearby water sources.
The July rule allows for the more than 400 coal ash pits across the nation, where coal residue is mixed with liquid and stored in open-air, often unlined ponds, to stay open as late as 2038.
“Right now toxic chemicals are poisoning water across the country because of dirty coal plants. The Trump administration acted illegally when it gave coal plants many more years to dump toxic waste in pits that contaminate waterways and drinking water sources. Instead of acting in the best interests of the American people, the administration once again put the coal power industry first,” Earthjustice attorney Lisa Evans said in a statement announcing the suit.
EPA would not comment on the suit.
The EPA has been under longstanding pressure to better regulate coal ash ponds because of the extreme risks associated with them.
An Environmental Integrity Project and Earthjustice review of monitoring data from coal ash ponds found 91 percent were leaking toxins in excess of what EPA allows, contaminating groundwater and drinking wells in nearby communities.
Contaminants also risk spilling over the sides of the pond any time there is heavy rain.
Under the extensions, coal ash ponds that are supposed to stop receiving waste by 2021 can keep receiving sludge for two to seven more years. Including the additional time for closing ponds, that allows some pits to stay open as late as 2038.
In rolling out the rule, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler stressed that groundwater monitoring data would be available to nearby communities.
“The public will also be better informed as EPA makes facility groundwater monitoring data more accessible and understandable,” he said.
Environmental groups argue that the rule violates both a 2018 court decision and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, which bars EPA from creating rules that have a “reasonable probability of adverse impacts.”
The 2018 order from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit required the EPA to shut down all coal ash ponds that do not have a plastic liner. The ruling said a 2015 Obama-era coal ash rule violated the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act dealing with hazardous waste “in failing to require the closure of unlined surface impoundments.”
Evans said utilities have already shown they can manage coal ash more effectively and said the rule is “bending to the lowest common denominator.”
“It’s not the role of EPA to make rules for the worst operators,” she said.
EPA is also working to finalize another coal ash rule that extends the life of unlined coal ash ponds.