The Environmental Protection Agency on Tuesday proposed regulating coal ash, possibly as a kind of hazardous waste, while phasing out wet storage impoundments. It would allow coal byproducts to be used in concrete, wallboard and other building materials.
EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said one proposed option would regulate the ash and its disposal as "special waste" under the hazardous waste section of the federal Resource Recovery and Conservation Act. The other would regulate it in the non-hazardous waste section of the law.
Jackson said power plant coal ash, which contains arsenic, cadmium, chromium, mercury, selenium and other substances defined as hazardous, has never before been regulated federally.
"Both proposals reflect a major step forward," she told reporters in a telephone conference call.
The announcement came 16 months after a huge coal ash spill at the Tennessee Valley Authority's Kingston Plant west of Knoxville.
An EPA statement said one proposed option would have EPA enforce compliance with waste management and disposal and the other would set performance guidelines to be "enforced primarily through citizen suits."
The statement said either proposal will "ensure for the first time that protective controls, such as liners and groundwater monitoring, are in place at new landfills to protect groundwater and human health. Existing surface impoundments will also require liners, with strong incentives to close the impoundments and transition to safer landfills, which store coal ash in dry form."
Jackson said EPA would hold hearings and seek public comment for 90 days but gave no timetable for a decision.
TVA is in the midst of a projected $1.2 billion cleanup of a total of 5.4 million cubic yards of ash that breached an earthen dike and spilled into and around the Emory River in December 2008, a disaster that Jackson said brought such impoundments and their potential dangers to national attention.
Barbara Martocci, a spokeswoman for the nation's largest public utility, said EPA's proposed regulations were being reviewed. She said TVA last year announced plans to convert wet ash impoundment to dry and to only use facilities with liners and systems to collect drainage.
TVA has been sending dredged coal ash from the spill to an Alabama landfill that has a liner and collects any drainage before hauling some of it in tanker trucks to wastewater treatment facilities.
Martocci said she could not comment about any prospective impact on TVA's long-term cost of cleaning up its ash spill.
Critics: Coal Ash Still a Health Risk
Matt Landon of United Mountain Defense, said in an e-mail statement that coal ash will always pose a risk to human and environmental health because of unsafe levels of heavy metals.
"EPA should stop ignoring the impacts to air quality from toxic coal fly ash and should classify it as a hazardous waste based on its heavy metal content and particle size," Landon said. "It is ridiculous that EPA is proposing new regulations of toxic coal fly ash that would only be enforced through citizen suits which puts an unfair burden on coal impacted communities to force the federal government to do its job."
Federal damage lawsuits related to the spill have been filed, but a judge has ruled that TVA is not liable for punitive damages.
Speakers at a Tuesday conference of dam safety experts in Charleston, W.Va., had cautioned in advance of EPA's announcement that regulating the ash as a hazardous waste would be the more daunting scenario for utilities and other industry stakeholders.
Neil Davies, an engineer with Geosyntec Consultants who led the conference discussion, said after EPA outlined its proposal that either version would spell the end for pond-like impoundments and wet storage methods.
"You'd have to remove the material, line it and then put it back," Davies said.
Davies and William Walton, another conference speaker, also called key the EPA's decision to allow the continued use of coal ash in concrete, wallboard and other products.
"They've acknowledged that fly ash has a role in beneficial re-use," said Walton, an engineer with the AECOM firm who has helped investigate the Kingston spill.