After months of deliberation, US Environmental Protection Agency administrator Lisa Jackson announced today the first-ever national rule to regulate toxic coal ash.
Coal ash, which is a byproduct of the burning of coal in power plants, can pose serious threats to public health and the environment if it is improperly managed. Until now, there has been no nationwide standard for the regulation of the material.
Jackson outlined two different proposals to regulate coal ash described under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. Under the first proposal, coal ash would be regulated as a "special waste," meaning the wet storage of the material at impoundments would be entirely phased out in favor of landfills. Under the second, more lenient proposal, impoundments would be required to use a composite liner for coal ash storage, which would prevent toxic materials from leaking into the groundwater.
"There is still material going into unlined impoundments," said a senior EPA official. "The EPA's analyses have shown that those unlined impoundments provide an opportunity for the leaking of metals to occur into groundwater and are a source of potential health risks. This would be the first time it would be regulated as it's disposed."
Jackson assured coal and construction company representatives that the new regulations would still allow for environmentally-safe forms of recycling coal ash. She said she hopes the proposals will begin a national dialogue about coal ash regulation and disposal.
"These proposals reflect varying approaches to enforcement and oversight, and there will be debate about which will be most effective," she said. "However, both proposals reflect a major step forward at the national level in reducing the risk of improper coal ash disposal. They would both require that, for the first time, new landfills install protective engineering controls such as liners and groundwater monitoring to protect groundwater and human health."
The proposals will be subject to 90 days of public comment before a final rule is submitted to the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. A senior EPA official said the rules could take anywhere from six months to two years to take effect.