EPA Declines to Classify Coal Ash as Hazardous Waste

Sunday, December 21, 2014
Dan River coal ash spill (photo: Center for Energy, Environment and Sustainability)

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on Friday finally announced federal rules for the disposal of coal ash, the toxic waste product of electric power generation. However, the decision came as a disappointment to those who had hoped the substance would be classified as hazardous waste.


EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said the rules, which will cover 1,425 coal ash ponds and landfills in 37 states, will treat coal ash the same as common household waste. That designation comes even though coal ash contains chemicals such as arsenic, chromium, mercury, and lead.


“We feel EPA had a golden opportunity and a clear mandate,” Lisa Evans, a senior attorney at the nonprofit law firm Earthjustice, which handled the coal ash litigation against the EPA, said according to the Center for Public Integrity. “They squandered it.”


Coal ash is often disposed of by being dumped by power companies into ditches or lagoons, which are then filled with water. The sludge often escapes into lakes and streams, as it did in February when 39,000 tons of coal ash from a Duke Energy plant polluted the Dan River in north central North Carolina.


“This is the worst-stored material we have in the country,” Frank Holleman, a senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center, told ClimateProgress. “Not everybody knows that the world’s leading country is allowing the storage of millions of tons of industrial waste containing toxic substances to take place in unlined pits filled with water, directly beside our nation’s water resources and our drinking water reservoirs.”


The new regulations will mandate groundwater monitoring around the dump sites and liners installed in new dumps. Old dump sites that don’t meet structural standards or that have already polluted waterways will be closed.


“We are better off today than we were yesterday. There were no federal coal ash standards,” Evans said. “But they represent a weak compromise that we hope can be strengthened in the future.”

-Steve Straehley


To Learn More:

Coal Ash No Worse Than Everyday Trash, EPA Rules (by Kristen Lombardi, Center for Public Integrity)

Industry, Environmentalists Brace for EPA Coal Ash Ruling (by Alan Neuhauser, U.S. News and World Report)

America’s Second-Biggest Form Of Waste Is About To Be Federally Regulated For The First Time (by Emily Atkin, ClimateProgress)

EPA Announces First National Regulations to Safeguard Disposal of Coal Ash (EPA)


Fred Summers 8 years ago
This is really interesting. There is so much that goes into waste disposal. Sometimes I wish there was more transparency in these decisions. There must have been a reason for the decision not to classify it as hazardous waste. Thanks for sharing this news.
anonamouse 9 years ago
No surprise that coal ash containing "arsenic, chromium, mercury, and lead" is deemed safe; the compound used to fluoridate public water supplies also has been deemed safe, despite being manufactured (at least at one time, not sure about current practice) from the waste byproducts of aluminum smelting containing .... arsenic, chromium, mercury, and lead.

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