EPA Aims to Implement Further Protections for Groundwater from Coal Ash Contamination

Jan. 12, 2022

This plan includes proposing decisions on requests for extensions to the current deadline for initiating closure of unlined coal combustion residuals (CCR) surface impoundments.

The U.S. EPA is taking actions to protect communities and hold facilities accountable for controlling and cleaning up the contamination created by decades of coal ash disposal. 

According to the EPA, coal combustion residuals (CCR or coal ash) are a byproduct of burning coal in coal-fired power plants, containing contaminants like mercury and arsenic. Improper management can pollute waterways, groundwater, drinking water, and the air.

EPA aims to protect groundwater from coal ash contamination and this plan includes: proposing decisions on requests for extensions to the current deadline for initiating closure of unlined CCR surface impoundments; putting several facilities on notice in order to comply with CCR regulations; and laying out plans for future regulatory actions to ensure coal ash impoundments meet environmental and safety standards. 

“I’ve seen firsthand how coal ash contamination can hurt people and communities. Coal ash surface impoundments and landfills must operate and close in a manner that protects public health and the environment,” said EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan, reported EPA. “For too long, communities already disproportionately impacted by high levels of pollution have been burdened by improper coal ash disposal. Today’s actions will help us protect communities and hold facilities accountable. We look forward to working with our state partners to reverse damage that has already occurred. EPA will support communities with stakeholder engagement, technical assistance, compliance assistance, and enforcement.”

EPA required most of the approximately 500 unlined coal ash surface impoundments nationwide to stop receiving waste and begin closure by April 2021, reported EPA.  EPA received and reviewed 57 applications from CCR facilities requesting deadline extensions. 52 were complete, four were incomplete, and one is ineligible for an extension.

EPA is proposing denying three requests for deadline extensions after identifying several potential deficiencies with groundwater monitoring, cleanup, and closure activities. Surface impoundments or landfills cannot be closed with coal ash in contact with groundwater. As a result, EPA is also taking action to notify facilities of their compliance obligations. 

EPA will work in collaboration with states on facility compliance, focusing on compliance at: facilities that intend to close surface impoundments with coal ash in contact with groundwater and facilities with surface impoundments that need further groundwater investigation.

Moving forward, EPA will improve the current rules by finalizing a federal permitting program for the disposal of coal ash and establishing regulations for legacy coal ash surface impoundments. EPA will also continue its review of state-level CCR program applications to ensure they are as protective as federal regulations.

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Cristina Tuser

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