The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced new actions to hold coal-burning power plants accountable for groundwater contamination.

The EPA ordered utilities to stop dumping coal ash in unlined pits and to speed up their plans to close sites that are leaking or at risk of spilling. The latest crackdown may prompt several power plants to close earlier than expected.

On January 12, the agency denied coal ash permit extension requests from three facilities: the Clifty Creek coal plant in Madison, Indiana, owned by Indiana-Kentucky Electric Corp.; the General James M. Gavin Power Plant in Cheshire, Ohio, owned by Blackstone Group and ArcLight Capital; and Alliant Energy’s Ottumwa plant in Iowa. According to the EPA, the plants previously indicated they might have to close if extensions weren’t granted. Together, the plants represent around 4.6 GW of generating capacity.

The 1.3 GW H.L. Spurlock plant in Maysville, Kentucky, owned by East Kentucky Power Cooperative, will be required to fix groundwater monitoring to continue operating its coal ash pond, the EPA said.

The agency said it identified several potential deficiencies with groundwater monitoring, cleanup, and closure activities. These included a lack of monitoring wells, improper monitoring techniques, faulty identification of other contamination sources, and insufficient evaluations of clean-up technologies.

EPA’s regulations required most of the roughly 500 unlined coal ash surface impoundments nationwide to stop receiving waste and begin closure by April 2021. The regulations outlined a process for facilities to apply for two types of extensions to the closure deadline.

The EPA said it had received 57 applications requesting permit extensions and would make more determinations in the next few months.

The agency also sent letters to operators of four current or closed coal-fired power plants, saying they need to make improvements to coal-ash sites to comply with EPA rules. The AES power plant in Puerto Rico and three closed plants — the former Beckjord power station in Ohio, Tecumseh Energy in Kansas and Gallagher Generating Station in Indiana — all received EPA warning letters.

Coal ash, the byproduct of burning coal for electricity, often contains mercury, cadmium, arsenic and other heavy metals. It can pollute waterways, poison wildlife, or cause respiratory illness among those who live near where it is stored.

This is the first time the EPA is enforcing a rule enacted several years ago to crack down on coal ash pollution. Under the Obama administration in 2015, the agency began regulating coal ash storage and disposal. This included a requirement to close holding ponds that were unstable or had contaminated water. The Trump administration relaxed the rule in 2020, allowing utilities to use less expensive technologies and take longer to comply with federal guidelines.

“For too long, communities already disproportionately impacted by high levels of pollution have been burdened by improper coal ash disposal,” said EPA Administrator Michael Regan. “Today’s actions will help us protect communities and hold facilities accountable.”

News of the renewed crackdown came as the agency also announced West Penn Power of Greensburg, Pennsylvania would pay a $610,000 penalty due to water discharge violations at two coal ash impoundment landfills in the southwestern part of the state.

According to the settlement, West Penn Power exceeded boron limits in discharges from the Mingo Landfill in Union Township, Washington County, and Springdale Landfill in Frazer Township, Allegheny County.

Along with the penalty, a consent decree requires West Penn Power to build gravity pipelines to new outfall locations for each landfill (Peters Creek for the Mingo pipeline and the Allegheny River for the Springdale pipeline). West Penn will also be required to collect data on instream boron levels in Peters Creek.

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