EPA moves to crack down on dangerous coal ash storage ponds

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The Environmental Protection Agency is taking its first major action to remove toxic wastewater from coal-burning power plants

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WASHINGTON — The Environmental Protection Agency is taking its first major action to address toxic wastewater from coal-burning power plants, after rejecting requests by three Midwest power plants to expand operation of leaking or otherwise hazardous coal ash storage ponds. has been

Plants in Indiana, Ohio and Iowa will have to close coal ash ponds months or years ahead of schedule, the EPA said Tuesday, citing deficiencies in groundwater monitoring or cleanup.

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Coal ash, which remains when coal is burned to generate electricity, contains a toxic mixture of mercury, cadmium, arsenic and other heavy metals. It can pollute waterways, poison wildlife and largely cause respiratory disease among people living near ponds where waste accumulates.

The EPA said a fourth industrial site, a former coal-fired power plant in New York state that now burns natural gas, is ineligible for expansion and will also be forced to close early. A separate coal-powered plant in Kentucky would need to fix groundwater monitoring as a prerequisite for the continued operation of its coal ash pond, the agency said.

For the first time ever, the EPA has implemented a 2015 rule aimed at reducing groundwater pollution from coal-fired power plants, which have contaminated streams, lakes and underground aquifers.

US coal plants produce about 100 million tons (90 million metric tons) of ash and other waste annually.

The Obama administration regulated the storage and disposal of toxic coal ash for the first time, including requiring the closure of coal-ash dumping ponds containing unstable or contaminated groundwater. The Trump administration weakened an Obama-era rule in 2020, allowing utilities to use cheaper technologies and take longer to comply with pollution reduction guidelines than those originally adopted by the agency are less stringent.

“I’ve seen firsthand how coal ash contamination can harm people and communities,” said Regan, a former North Carolina environmental regulator who spoke with Duke Energy, which state officials say is toxic. The biggest clean-up settlement was for coal ash.

“For too long, the burden of improper coal ash disposal has been placed on communities already disproportionately affected by high levels of pollution,” Regan said. “Today’s action will help us protect communities and hold facilities accountable. We look forward to working with our state partners to repair the damage already done.”

In separate letters sent Tuesday, the EPA denied requests for an extension of coal ash permits by the Clifty Creek Power Plant in Madison, Indiana; In Cheshire, Ohio, the James M. Gavin Plant; and the Ottumwa plant in Ottumwa, Iowa.

The Greenidge Generation Plant in Dresden, NY was declared ineligible for expansion. The former coal plant now uses natural gas.

Conditional approval was granted to the HL Spurlock plant in Maysville, Ky.

Lisa Evans, a senior attorney for environmental group EarthJustice, said the enforcement action “sends a strong message to the industry that (compliance with the EPA rule) is not a paperwork. For this they need to clean up these toxic sites.”

Data released by utilities in 2018 showed widespread evidence of contamination at coal plants from Virginia to Alaska.

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