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New EPA rules treat coal ash like garbage

Agency officials say material is not hazardous

By Dina Cappiello
Associated Press

Coal ash slurry lingers in a containment pond Dec. 29, 2008, near the Tennessee Valley Authority's Kingston Fossil Plant in Harriman, Tenn., after the dyke (left) broke Dec. 22, 2008. The Obama administration was under court order to unveil the first national standards for coal ash Friday. The announcement ends a six-year effort to document coal-ash waste sites that began after the massive spill at the Tennessee power plant. (AP photo submitted by Wade Payne, Greeenpeace)

Coal ash slurry lingers in a containment pond Dec. 29, 2008, near the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Kingston Fossil Plant in Harriman, Tenn., after the dyke (left) broke Dec. 22, 2008. The Obama administration was under court order to unveil the first national standards for coal ash Friday. The announcement ends a six-year effort to document coal-ash waste sites that began after the massive spill at the Tennessee power plant. (AP photo submitted by Wade Payne, Greeenpeace)

Washington — The Obama administration has set the first national standards for waste generated from coal burned for electricity, treating the leftovers more like household garbage rather than hazardous material.

Environmentalists had pushed for the hazardous classification, citing the hundreds of cases nationwide in which coal ash waste had tainted waterways or underground aquifers. The coal industry wanted the less-stringent classification, arguing coal ash is not dangerous and that a hazardous label would hinder recycling. About 40 percent of coal ash is reused.

Officials from the Environmental Protection Agency said in a call with reporters Friday that the record does not support a hazardous classification. Agency officials said the steps they were taking would protect communities from the risks associated with coal-ash waste sites and hold the companies operating them accountable.

“It does what we hoped to accomplish … in a very aggressive but reasonable and pragmatic way,” EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said.

The Obama administration was under court order to unveil the rules Friday, ending a six-year effort that began after a massive spill at a Tennessee power plant in 2008. Since then, the EPA has documented coal-ash waste sites tainting with heavy metals and other toxic contaminants hundreds of waterways and underground aquifers in numerous states.

Coal ash has been piling up in ponds and landfill sites at power plants for years, an unintended consequence of the EPA’s push to scrub air pollutants from smokestacks.

In volume, the ash ranks behind only household trash in quantity and is expected to grow as the EPA controls pollutants such as carbon dioxide, mercury and other toxic air pollutants from the nation’s coal fleet. On the upside, a switch from coal to natural gas-fired power plants in recent years has generated less ash.

The rules unveiled Friday will boost monitoring for leaks, control blowing dust and require companies make testing results public. The rules also set standards for closing waste sites, requiring those that are structurally deficient or tainting waterways to close.

But the regulations do not cover sites at shuttered power plants. And in some cases, the rules would let landfills that do not meet the new standards continue to operate.

Environmentalists vowed Friday to work toward making the rules stronger.

“While EPA and the Obama Administration have taken a modest first step by introducing some protections on the disposal of coal ash,” said Mary Anne Hitt, director of the Sierra Club’s coal campaign, “they do not go far enough to protect families from this toxic pollution.”

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