On July 29, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency finalized a rule change that allows electric utilities to continue dumping coal ash into unlined storage ponds for an additional six months. This extension is the first of five changes the EPA plans to make regarding Obama-era coal ash storage regulations, according to the Engineering News-Record. National environmental organizations Sierra Club and Earthjustice plan to challenge the change in court.
“The final rule boils down to giving industry more time to operate surface impoundments, despite the court ruling,” Earthjustice attorney Lisa Evans told E&E News. “Their highest priority is to serve the interest of the coal electric industry.”
In 2015, the Obama administration issued a closure deadline of April 2019 for unlined coal ash ponds — but allowed unlined ponds with no recorded groundwater contamination to operate indefinitely. A federal court ruled these standards as too lenient in 2018, and the EPA states that the July 2020 rule change adheres to this ruling.
This new rule specifies that all unlined ponds must retrofit or close, not just those with groundwater contamination above regulatory levels. The classification of “unlined” now also includes clay-lined impoundments, meaning that these impoundments must be retrofitted or closed as well. The EPA also finalized rules making groundwater monitoring data more accessible to the public. The revised date of April 2021 for these changes and closures of pond locations was determined after reviewing construction timeline information and finding that not all utilities would be able to meet the original 2020 deadline, according to the EPA.
The EPA will give some utilities through fall 2024 to close coal ash ponds if they are able to demonstrate a need for more time. Additionally, the agency is giving operators with coal ash ponds greater than 40 acres until 2028 to close the sites. Lisa Evans with Earthjustice told E&E News that companies with these larger ponds would have the opportunity to file for additional extensions through 2038.
“If it weren’t for the Trump administration, the dumping of toxic coal ash into leaking ponds would have stopped over a year ago,” said Evans in a statement. “This is yet another time that the administration put the interests of lobbyists before the health of Americans. We’ll see the Trump administration in court.” — By Emerson Wells