The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed a rule that would require the safe management of coal ash dumped in areas that are currently unregulated at the federal level.

These areas include inactive power plants with coal ash ponds no longer being used and historical coal ash disposal areas at plants with regulated coal ash units. The proposal, announced by the EPA on May 17, is not expected to affect current power plant operations.

Coal ash surface impoundments at inactive facilities, referred to as “legacy CCR surface impoundments,” are more likely to be unlined and unmonitored, making them more prone to leaks and structural problems than units at facilities that are currently in service.

In 2015, EPA issued national minimum standards for existing and new CCR landfills, as well as existing and new CCR surface impoundments at active facilities. That final rule did not establish requirements for inactive facilities – a gap that a federal court directed EPA to address in 2018.

The safeguards EPA is now proposing largely mirror those for inactive surface impoundments at active facilities, including requiring the proper closure of the impoundments and remediating coal ash contamination in groundwater.

In addition, through implementation of the 2015 CCR rule, EPA found that power plants with regulated coal ash ponds had also disposed of the byproduct in areas outside of regulated units.  These areas could include coal ash in ponds and landfills that closed prior to the effective date of the 2015 CCR Rule, inactive CCR landfills, and other areas where coal ash is placed directly on the land. The EPA is proposing to apply certain protections in EPA’s coal ash regulations to these areas.

Coal ash is a byproduct of burning coal in power plants that, without proper management, can pollute waterways, groundwater, drinking water and the air. Coal ash contains contaminants like mercury, cadmium, chromium, and arsenic associated with cancer and various other serious health effects.

EPA is collecting public comments on the new proposal for the next 60 days.

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