EPA’s First-ever Coal Ash Rule Leaves Indiana Communities to Fend for Themselves
Rule Leaves Major Gaps in Protection from Toxic Coal Ash
WASHINGTON, DC – The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency today issued federal regulations for coal ash that had been delayed for over four years, but failed to fix major pollution problems from the disposal of coal ash waste, including contamination of rivers and drinking water supplies.
The U.S. EPA’s failure to issue strong ash disposal regulations means that environmental disasters like the Dan River coal ash spill in North Carolina this February, the billion gallon ash spill in Kingston, Tennessee in 2008, as well as two spills in Martinsville, Indiana in 2007 and 2008 could happen again.
“Although EPA has at last recognized that coal ash disposal should be subject to more protective standards, its new rule will still allow states to avoid an active oversight role, an approach that has failed to prevent drinking water contamination or protect public health,” said Tim Maloney, senior policy director of the Hoosier Environmental Council, and author of the widely cited 2014 Indiana policy paper on coal ash, Our Waters at Risk. “Without mandatory federal standards, Hoosiers will continue to be exposed to toxic wastes leaking from unlined coal ash lagoons that are built directly above underground water supplies.”
The new rule fails to phase out the dangerous practice of storing immense quantities of toxic waste in unlined lagoons or ponds behind earthen dams that are often structurally unstable and prone to failure. EPA’s approach effectively lets the utility industry police itself without federal or state oversight.
Indiana leads the nation in the number of coal ash sludge lagoons, with 84 lagoons located at coal-burning power plants throughout the state. There are unlined coal ash lagoons in communities across the state including in Indianapolis, Michigan City, and in the vicinity of Evansville, Indiana. For a complete list of coal ash lagoons in Indiana, visit http://indianacoalash.org
Because of lax oversight and minimal regulation in the past, there have been ten instances of groundwater contamination from leaking lagoons, and three spills of coal ash sludge have occurred into Indiana waterways. Most recently, the Marion County Public Health Department has been investigating the possibility that contaminants leaking from coal ash lagoons at IPL’s Harding Street Generating Station are contaminating drinking water wells in a southside neighborhood.
The EPA rule requires water quality monitoring and public disclosure of the results, which should help citizens to track damage from dumps and to go to court to force clean-ups. However, communities are understandably concerned that coal plant operators will not reliably identify, report and remedy water contamination and structural risks without independent oversight.
Coal ash is the toxic waste formed from burning coal in power plants to make electricity. It is filled with some of the deadliest toxins known to man, including hazardous chemicals such as arsenic, lead, mercury, and hexavalent chromium. Coal ash—the second largest industrial waste stream in the United States–is linked to the four leading causes of death in the U.S.: heart disease, cancer, respiratory diseases and stroke.
Unsafe disposal of coal ash into the nation’s more than 1,400 coal ash waste dumps has contaminated more than 200 rivers, lakes, streams and sources of underground drinking water in 37 states. Coal ash, when dumped in unlined lagoons and landfills, often poisons drinking water and kills fish and wildlife.
Coal ash regulations were proposed in 2010 following the largest toxic waste spill in U.S. history in Kingston, Tenn., when one billion gallons of coal ash sludge destroyed 300 acres and dozens of homes. But in response to pressure from the coal power industry, EPA delayed finalizing the proposed rule.
In 2013, in response to legal action initiated by ten conservation and environmental groups, a consent decree was lodged in federal court that set a deadline of December 19, 2014 for EPA’s final rule.