EPA Gets an Earful on Proposed Toxic Coal Ash Rollback

Yesterday EPA held a public hearing on its latest proposal to roll back health and safety standards for coal ash. Coal ash, the toxic remains of burning coal at power plants, is one of the nation’s largest industrial waste streams. It is full of chemicals that cause cancer, developmental disorders, and reproductive problems. Across the country, coal ash poisons our water and kills fish and wildlife.

A landmark rule in 2015 established the first-ever federal safety standards for this dangerous waste. But in response to coal industry lobbying, a new Trump proposal would create dangerous exemptions for two common methods of coal ash disposal: the creation of uncontained piles of waste, and the reuse of ash as fill in construction projects.

Yesterday’s hearing was full of emotional testimony from survivors of coal ash pollution, including a mother who discovered a cancer cluster in her town that is likely related to coal ash contamination after her teenage daughter was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. We also heard from the wives of workers who suffered severe respiratory damage after helping clean up a massive coal ash spill in Tennessee in 2008.

I attended the hearing and testified in opposition to the proposed changes. Below is a full copy of my testimony. Members of the public can submit written comments on this proposal until October 15.

Coal ash waste pile in Guayama, Puerto Rico. Image: Earthjustice

Coal Ash Hearing Testimony – Rebecca Hammer, NRDC – October 2, 2019

By eviscerating essential safeguards on two extremely dangerous ways of disposing of coal ash, the proposed changes under consideration today run directly counter to the EPA’s mission of protecting the environment and public health.

Coal ash is highly toxic to humans. It contains carcinogens, neurotoxins, and poisons that can cause cancer, heart disease, and stroke, and can inflict permanent brain damage in children. When coal ash is dumped without proper safeguards, its hazardous constituents are released into air, water, and soil, harming nearby communities and natural resources.

The proposed rule changes, which would weaken requirements for coal ash waste piles and the use of coal ash in construction projects, fail to meet the protective standard of RCRA section 4004(a). They are also arbitrary and capricious and without a rational basis because they ignore science.

Furthermore, the practices governed by these rules pose a disproportionate threat to low income communities and communities of color. The proposed rule fails to take all lawful and practicable steps to address the disproportionate impacts of coal ash disposal and thus violates executive order 12898 on environmental justice.

Coal ash managed in waste piles has caused serious harm to human health and the environment, in many cases damage that is just as serious as the harm caused by permanent coal ash landfills. Coal ash piles can cause significant groundwater contamination, as we have seen at the Guayama Power Plant in Puerto Rico. Fugitive dust from coal ash piles can harm air quality and respiratory health as well.

Yet the rule lacks any rational justification for removing the waste pile safeguards established in the 2015 coal ash rule. In fact, it directly contradicts the findings that EPA made when it developed that rule.

The proposal allows waste piles of substantial size to remain in place for significant periods of time without meeting any meaningful control standards to prevent harmful releases of coal ash to air, water, and soil. The rule would not require that waste be removed from the pile according to any set timetable. As long as the waste is eventually removed, even if that occurs years or even decades in the future, the rule would consider the pile to be “temporary storage” with no size limits, monitoring requirements, siting restrictions, or any other specific enforceable pollution control requirements.

This is absurd and renders the concept of a temporary waste pile meaningless. It is patently insufficient to prevent the reasonable probability of adverse effects on health and the environment. What’s more, the required demonstration of temporariness – by providing a record documenting that the waste in the pile will eventually be removed – provides no certainty and can be easily evaded by the regulated industry.

EPA should continue to require that waste piles meet the same safeguards as permanent landfills. At the very least, the rules should require that waste piles be cleared at a minimum of every six months in order to be considered temporary. The agency should also require submission of shipment records. The volume of the pile should be limited, and the waste should be contained in a silo to protect the health of workers and nearby communities.

As for coal ash reuse projects, ash placed on land as so-called “beneficial use” has caused serious harm to human health and the environment. The proposal to weaken restrictions on this practice ignores copious record evidence of damage from reuse sites, including Superfund sites in Indiana, Virginia, and other locations across the country.

In 2014, EPA found in its risk assessment that the risk of damage from coal ash reuse projects is related to the volume of ash. Yet this proposed rule would remove the mass-based numerical threshold triggering the requirement for large reuse projects to demonstrate environmental safety. This makes no sense. The rule should maintain a mass-based threshold of no more than 5,000 tons.

The proposed rule is also unjustified in failing to prohibit unlined deposits of coal ash in inherently dangerous areas. A wealth of evidence, including monitoring data generated pursuant to the 2015 rule, indicates that unlined deposits of ash can leach toxic substances into groundwater.

Coal ash should not be placed into the environment at all, but if it is, EPA must adopt more stringent locational criteria regarding the placement of coal ash, including distance from the uppermost aquifer and proximity to unstable areas, floodplains, and seismic impact zones. Placement at those sites must be prohibited if those stringent criteria are not met.

In conclusion, we urge the agency not to carry out these dangerous rollbacks of critical health and environmental safeguards. The current rule proposal is a naked giveaway to the polluting industry that ignores the safety of our families and communities.

Thank you.

About the Authors

Becky Hammer

Deputy Director, Federal Water Policy; Senior Attorney, Nature Program

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