What’s at Risk and Talking Points
Coal ash (or coal combustion residuals, CCR)) is one of the largest categories of industrial waste in the United States. Created when coal is burned by utilities to produce electricity, coal ash includes mercury, arsenic and other hazardous contaminants. According to the EPA, 470 power plants generated about 110 million tons of coal ash in 2012.[i] When not managed properly, the storage and disposal areas for coal ash can pose serious environmental and health risks. For example, a 2008 spill in Tennessee and another spill in 2014 in North Carolina had devastating impacts on watersheds, nearby homes, and public health.[ii] As of 2014, there have been 208 known cases of coal-ash spills and contamination.[iii]
EPA's 2015 Coal Ash Rule
In 2015, the EPA issued regulations to reduce the risks of coal ash disposal by requiring monitoring and corrective action for leaks into the groundwater and air; setting restrictions for where coal ash landfills and surface impoundments could be located; and creating liner design criteria for these disposal units. The rule also set out recordkeeping and reporting requirements to better inform the public of the risks and closure requirements for old disposal units.[iv] In 2016, Congress passed the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation (WIIN) Act, which provided enforcement authority to the states and federal government over these facilities.
Trump Proposal to Roll Back Coal Ash Rule
In response to requests from the utility industry, the Trump Administration is proposing the first of two rules that would weaken several provisions of the 2015 coal ash rule. This proposal would “incorporate flexibilities” into the performance standards for these disposal units, essentially letting states take actions that set less stringent standards for cleanup, groundwater monitoring, and siting of disposal facilities.[v]
More specifically, the rule would allow states to set less strict groundwater standards for certain contaminants rather than cleaning up to background levels. States would also be able to determine that remediation of spills and leaks would not be necessary in certain circumstances. Groundwater monitoring could be modified and, in some cases, suspended if a demonstration could be made that there is no migration of pollutants. The rule would also allow states to reduce the time currently required to monitor corrective actions and post-closure of sites. It would also allow the use of coal ash in construction of cover systems for disposal units.
The proposed rule also responds to various issues remanded by a court in 2016. For example, it adds boron to the list of contaminants that must be monitored and it clarifies the types of woody and grassy vegetation that can be used for slope protection.
What To Say
Suggested Talking Points
Coal ash is the toxic waste left after coal is burned at power plants. It contains arsenic, chromium, lead, mercury, radium, and other hazardous chemicals that present serious risks to human health and the environment.
More than 110 million tons of coal ash are generated every year in the United States. For years, coal ash has been disposed of in unlined pits, leading to leaks of this toxic material into groundwater, drinking water, lakes, and rivers.
The EPA should continue to protect communities around these utilities and should uphold the existing standards – not propose to weaken them.
The proposed rule would give states and utilities more the opportunity to set less protective standards and require less extensive clean up and monitoring of sites.
Given the devastating coal-ash spills of the past – and the current evidence that there remains significant contamination – we should continue to uphold the strongest possible standards to protect the public and the environment.
There Is More That You Can Do
It would be great if well-reasoned, fact-based comments were enough to win the day, but in today's deregulatory environment, raising the political stakes of regulatory rollbacks is crucial to stopping or slowing them down. Submitting comments is a good first step. For rules that are particularly important to you, please consider taking one or more of the following steps, too. These methods can help to mobilize public opinion and spur elected leaders to fight the destructive changes that the Trump Administration is promoting.
Write to your members of Congress and other elected officials. Let them know your concerns and ask them to weigh in on this rollback, and speak out publicly in favor of the Methane and Waste Prevention Rule. These links make it easy to write your members of Congress (your representative in the House of Representatives and your two senators). If you're willing to register with Countable, this link -- https://www.
Write letters to the editor and even op-eds in your local papers. Letters to the editor should be fairly brief.
Organize or participate in campaigns to make phone calls or write letters to members of Congress, and make phone calls to radio stations during call-in days, or take other actions to spread the word.
Inform your local officials about these issues, and ask them to make a public statement or submit comments on a proposed rollback if your jurisdiction has a stake in these issues. Bring up these issues at town hall meetings.
Spread the word via social media. Tag your elected officials so they know how you feel.
Join or organize demonstrations.
Talk to your friends, colleagues and neighbors and encourage them to join in this effort.
Links for More Information
The EPA’s website about coal ash: https://www.epa.gov/coalash
Earthjustice information on coal ash: https://earthjustice.org/category/case/coal-ash-regulations
Environmental Policy Initiative at Harvard Law School information on coal ash: http://environment.law.harvard.edu/2017/12/coal-ash-rule/
[i] See https://www.epa.gov/coalash.
[ii] In Kingston, Tennessee, 5.4 million cubic yards of coal ash were released (https://www.epa.gov/tn/epa-response-kingston-tva-coal-ash-spill); in Eden, North Carolina, up to 39,000 tons were released (https://www.epa.gov/dukeenergy-coalash/history-and-response-timeline)
[iii] See https://earthjustice.org/features/coal-ash-contaminated-sites.
[iv] See the EPA’s fact sheet for the 2015 final rule at https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2014-12/documents/factsheet_ccrfinal_2.pdf
[v] See the EPA’s press release on the proposed rule: https://www.epa.gov/newsreleases/epa-proposes-first-two-rules-amend-coal-ash-disposal-regulations-saving-100m-year. The full proposal can be found at https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2018/03/15/2018-04941/hazardous-and-solid-waste-management-system-disposal-of-coal-combustion-residuals-from-electric.