EPA Announces First-Ever Rules To Regulate Coal Ash

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A newly announced crackdown on carbon emissions raises lots of questions.

Coal ash is the waste from burning coal that is not released into the air but is collected at the plant and disposed.

Greg Goebel / Wikimedia Commons

Coal ash is the waste from burning coal that is not released into the air but is collected at the plant and disposed.

On December 19, 2014, the Environmental Protection Agency released the first national guidelines to regulate the disposal of coal ash. This dust-like substance is what is leftover when power plants burn coal for electricity, and can contain toxins like arsenic, lead and mercury. Coal ash is usually collected and then buried in a disposal pond or landfill. In some cases, it can be recycled. The EPA’s new rule aims to make it safer to get rid of this material because, if done improperly, disposal can lead to contaminated drinking water and air. The agency stopped short of classifying it as a “hazardous material,” as it had in one of the two preliminary proposals. In a press call, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said that the available data did not support that designation. Here are some of the new requirements that will address the risks of disposal leakage and contamination:

  • Closure of disposal sites that do not meet certain engineering standards
  • Regular safety inspections of disposal sites
  • Restrictions on the locations of new disposal sites so that they cannot be built in sensitive areas such as wetlands and earthquake zones
  • Closure of unlined disposal sites
  • Requirement of liner barriers for new disposal sites

The EPA started working on the issue of coal ash in the wake of a massive spill in Tennessee in 2008 that cost over $1 billion to clean up. In February, a pipeline running under a coal ash disposal pond in North Carolina burst, contaminating a nearby river.