Front Porch Blog

Federal and N.C. coal ash rules under attack

The Dan River, the site of one of North Carolina’s major coal ash spills (Photo: Eric Chance)

Co-authored with Kevin Ridder

In March, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced plans to dramatically weaken the first-ever federal regulations—created in 2015—to regulate how coal ash is disposed of and stored across the country. Coal ash is the toxic byproduct of burning coal for electricity. More than 130 million tons of coal ash are produced annually, and the Southern Appalachians are where the most egregious coal ash spills in the country have occurred.

Although only three years old, the coal ash rules are under attack, along with many other environmental protections, from the head of the EPA, Scott Pruitt, and the changes are not modest.

Some of the proposed changes would:
1. Allow weaker groundwater protection standards and remove children’s health protections
2. Make toxic cleanups discretionary
3. Eliminate the requirement to close coal ash ponds that fail safety standards
4. Remove the requirement for polluters to respond immediately to coal ash spills
5. Remove the requirement to post compliance data, leaving citizens in the dark even after the same data revealed widespread radioactivity in coal ash ponds.

Pruitt stated this proposed change would allow states to “incorporate flexibilities into their coal ash permit programs,” and the EPA projects it would save utilities up to $100 million a year. The cost to the environment and the communities adjacent to these unlined toxic pits, however, doesn’t seem to be a consideration to either the EPA or the private utility monopolies.

In addition to the threat of weakening these coal ash rules, Pruitt halved the typical 90-day public comment period to just 45 days.

In April, Appalachian Voices’ North Carolina team carried the testimonies of three North Carolina mothers who have been impacted by coal ash to the EPA hearing in Arlington, Va. The women’s testimonies relayed their personal experiences of the burdens and fears of living on bottled water and the concerns they have for their health and the health of their communities. They asked that the protections put in place by the 2015 federal rules not be removed or altered.

Caroline Armijo, a community member of the Belews Creek Steam Station, said in her testimony, “I am gravely concerned about the rollback of regulations that we see proposed here today. As community members, we know that having access and availability to industry data for these regulations [is] helpful and critical to our health.”

Jeremy Orr, civil rights attorney and recent appointee to the EPA’s National Environmental Justice Advisory council is quoted as saying “Can you really quantify and trade off the disproportionate health impacts that these communities near these ponds are going to suffer?”

Another opponent of the change is Frank Holleman, an attorney with the nonprofit law firm Southern Environmental Law Center, who states that weakening the rules is a dangerous move.

Holleman told The Progressive Pulse that existing federal rules “aren’t the strongest, but [they] did set some minimum standards and pretty clear triggers—if utilities exceeded standards in polluting groundwater, they [would] have stop and clean it up. That’s what Pruitt’s trying to attack and soften and weaken. His technique is to grant state agencies and the utilities ‘flexibility’ in determining when and what action must be taken.”

How these changes will impact North Carolina

North Carolina is in an interesting position because the state already has protective legislation in place through the 2014 Coal Ash Management Act, which dictates much of the disposal and cleanup requirements for coal ash ponds in the state. In addition, state agencies are now proposing to introduce new coal ash rules on the state level that would incorporate requirements to mirror the federal rules that the EPA proposes to remove.

However, the proposed changes to North Carolina’s rules have already come under fire. In a press release, the Southern Environmental Law Center stated that the proposed North Carolina rule changes “represents a significant step backwards, creating opportunities for Duke Energy to delay cleanup and snarl citizen efforts in bureaucratic and legal complexities.”

Ideally, the state rules will provide DEQ the authority to protect public health and the environment and enforce their own regulations in a way that can’t be manipulated by Duke Energy’s political pressure. A state rule— without loopholes— that can establish protective, clear groundwater standards (especially for hexavalent chromium) as well as pressure Duke into having a shorter timeline to address problems would be a great first step.

While the extent to which federal changes would affect North Carolina’s rules remains unclear, Dave Rogers with the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign states that a strong EPA rule is necessary.

“It’s really important to have that kind of strong federal backstop in case anything does change at the state level, as we’ve seen and experienced in North Carolina,” Rogers said.

Xavier Boatright, an organizer with Clean Water for North Carolina, states that “the Federal CCR rules that are being rolled back on the federal level will allow Duke Energy to determine their own cleanup plan and ultimately cap in place the 100 million tons of coal ash left in the ground.”

The final draft of the state rules will be submitted in July, followed by a 60-day public comment period.

A graduate of Appalachian State University with a B.S. in ecology and evolutionary biology, Ridge served as our AmeriCorps Outreach Associate from 2015-17 and is now on staff as the Field Coordinator for our North Carolina program.