EPA issues first-ever national regulations regarding coal ash waste today

MADISON — After years of waiting, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released the first national regulations for the disposal of coal ash from power plants this afternoon. Despite the long wait, today’s regulations do not adequately protect our water and our health.

“Today’s regulations don’t go far enough in regulating this toxic waste,” says Tyson Cook, director of science and research for Clean Wisconsin, a state-level environmental organization. “With recent environmental disasters involving coal ash, and a growing body of evidence around the potential for coal ash to leach toxic chemicals into our waters, it’s disappointing the EPA did not produce stronger, more protective regulations.”

A byproduct of burning coal in power plants, coal ash can contain high levels of hazardous chemicals like arsenic, lead, mercury, molybdenum and hexavalent chromium. Each year, utility companies produce about 130 million tons of this waste nationwide, much of which is dumped in coal ash ponds and landfills, or placed under roads and buildings as part of “beneficial reuse” projects.

“With few exceptions, today’s regulations do little to improve protections around all-too-common practices like spreading coal ash under businesses and schools,” says Cook.

In Wisconsin, about 85% of the coal ash produced each year goes to reuse projects; many of these are unencapsulated, meaning that the chemicals in the ash are not bound up in a product to keep them from potentially leaching into the environment. A report released by Clean Wisconsin in November, Don’t Drink the Water, examined the connection between groundwater contamination in southeast Wisconsin and unencapsulated coal ash reuse. The report found that there was a correlation between reuse projects in the region and the contamination of people’s drinking water wells. One bright spot in today’s release is the EPA’s acknowledgement of the report and that more research is needed on the practice.

“Despite an otherwise lackluster rule, it’s heartening that the EPA heard our concerns and recognizes the need for more research on the unencapsulated reuse of coal ash and how it affects our water,” says Cook. “But across the board, we need stronger standards to protect our families, our water and our health against the dangers of posed by coal ash.”