The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced today that it has developed a proposal that would establish national guidelines for the storage of toxic coal ash. Coal ash is the sludge produced from coal-burning power plants. The material was never listed as hazardous and thus never fell under government regulations. However, the December 2008 coal ash spill from an east Tennessee fossil fuel plant turned the spotlight on the safety of coal ash.
As filtering processes at plants became more effective over the years in removing the toxins from smokestacks, the coal ash left behind became more lethal. Tests show that coal ash contains heavy metals and carcinogens that can hazardous to humans and wildlife. After the 2008 spill, which covered 300 acres of a nearby community in 1.1 billion gallons of coal ash sludge, the federal government ordered the EPA to establish guidelines for regulating the storage of coal ash.
The EPA has outlined two different proposals to regulate coal ash storage under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. The first would regulate coal ash as a “special waste” and would require the phasing out of wet storage at impoundment plants and moving that waste to landfills. The second proposal would allow for on-site storage of coal ash but the ponds would be required to be lined to prevent any toxic materials from seeping into groundwater.
The proposals will be open to public comment for 90 days before a final rule is submitted to the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. Implementation of the new guidelines could take another two years to go into effect.