Easier Rules Proposed for Power Companies’ Coal Ash Storage

High water shown on the Mobile River adjacent to Plant Barry after a period of heavy rain. Plant Barry’s generating towers are in the background, with the coal ash pond surrounded on multiple sides by water. (Source: Cade Kistler, Mobile Baykeeper)

The Trump Administration is seeking changes in federal coal ash rules that could allow power producers to store toxic coal ash in unlined basins for up to eight more years and ease rules on temporary storage of ash for use in construction projects as filler material.

Electric utilities in Alabama are using a decreasing supply of coal. Alabama Power uses coal to produce power at locations in Jefferson, Shelby and Mobile counties,  but it has inactive plants where coal ash is still stored. PowerSouth Electric Cooperative announced it would close its coal burning facility in Washington County within a year and cap-in-place its coal ash waste, and the Tennessee Valley Authority stores coal ash at its inactive coal plant in Colbert County.

The Southern Environment Law Center, with offices in Birmingham, along with EarthJustice and several other “green” organizations, is opposing the proposed rules that govern one of the nation’s largest industrial waste products.

Earlier this year, Alabama Power and PowerSouth were fined $250,000 for each of their coal ash containment sites when required groundwater monitoring showed all of their storage facilities were polluting groundwater under the material. In May, Alabama Power was slapped with an additional such fine even though it had closed the site and covered it with an impermeable plastic layer.

Environmental groups have long lobbied the electric producers to move the tons of material from their locations next to waterways and truck it to higher ground with an underlying liner to keep pollutants from leaking into the groundwater supply.

The existing 2015 rules governing what’s called coal combustion residuals, or CCRs, were put in place by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency under former President Obama.

Monday, the EPA is planning to ease those rules on coal ash, the Washington Post reported.

EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said in a statement that the Obama-era rules “placed heavy burdens on electricity producers across the country.”

“These proposed revisions support the Trump administration’s commitment to responsible, reasonable regulations,” Wheeler said, “by taking a common-sense approach that will provide more certainty to U.S. industry while also protecting public health and the environment.”

The new rules would give companies until Aug. 31 to stop disposing of coal ash in unlined storage ponds near waterways and either begin to close them or to retrofit the ponds to make them safer. The new rules also would give power plant operators more time to request extensions of 90 days to three years.

If a company is shutting down a coal boiler, it can request permission to keep storage ponds open for as long as eight years.

Interactive map shows coal ash ponds that are leaking dangerous substances.

Earlier this year, several environmental groups released an interactive map they say shows the potential danger of coal ash ponds, based on results of the utilities’ federally required tests of groundwater pollution near the facilities. It map shows where arsenic, molybdenum, and other chemicals persist at levels that exceed government-set standards.

Nationwide, reports from companies given earlier this year revealed that arsenic, lithium and other pollutants are in the groundwater at 91 percent of the sites where combusted coal residue is stored.

All of the regulated  open coal ash ponds in Alabama sit within five feet of an aquifer or groundwater reservoir, in violation of federal standards, company filings from a year ago confirmed.