The Environmental Protection Agency on Friday announced the first-ever federal regulations concerning the storage and disposal of coal ash, a byproduct of coal-fired power plants.

The agency, however, chose not to regulate the substance as a hazardous waste, a move called for by many environmental and public health groups. Instead, federal officials chose an option, favored by energy companies, in which the EPA suggests safeguards and states must choose to adopt them.

Unless states adopt their own, stricter standards, the new rule leaves enforcement to suits brought by citizens, a measure that discourages people like Mitch Reid of the Alabama Rivers Alliance.

“What kind of country are we living in where citizens have to monitor their own water,” he asked.

The new regulation treats coal ash as it would household garbage, he said, allowing the material to be dumped in municipal landfills. He characterized the rule as nothing more than a list of good suggestions.

Power companies have been planning for the change since at least 2010, when the EPA announced the proposals for the new rule.

Treating it as a hazardous waste would mean more stringent regulations. Under this classification, states and the federal government monitor and enforce the requirements. They also issue permits for the companies.

Alabama Power spokesman Michael Sznajderman said it was too early to know exactly what the impact from the new regulation would be for the company. But he said regulating coal ash as a hazardous waste would have significantly raised the cost of handling the material.

He added that Alabama Power has had an inspection program for more than 40 years for the sites where it stores its ash.

Powerful remains

Coal ash, often referred to as coal combustion residuals, is produced when coal is burned to generate electricity.

Facilities such as Miller or Gadsden steam plants burn coal to heat water, which creates steam that then moves turbines. The equipment used in this process catches much of the after-product to prevent pollution in the air. Once the process is complete, however, power plants are left with massive piles of fine dust.   

Hundreds of millions of tons of coal ash are produced every year. It’s stored in ponds, dams or landfills. Some of it is recycled, however, and used to make products such as cement or roofing materials.

In a Friday press release from the agency, EPA officials said they will continue to support responsible recycling of coal ash.

Despite their uses, CCRs contain a broad range of metals, such as arsenic, which can have serious health and environmental effects.

Improperly constructed or managed coal ash disposal units have been linked to nearly 160 cases of harm to surface or groundwater or to the air, the EPA’s Friday release states.

Alabama Power stores its coal ash that isn’t recycled in open-air enclosures, not landfills. Those sites are lined with clay, and the company has never seen an indication of seepage, Sznajderman said.

A recent release from the Alabama Rivers Alliance and the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy states that “the EPA has found that living next to a coal ash disposal site can increase your risk of cancer or other diseases, especially if you live near an unlined wet impoundment that contains coal ash commingled with other wastes.”

Representatives of the two groups are concerned about the proximity of many coal ash impoundments to several drinking water intakes across the state.

They point to the Gadsden Steam Plant, which discharges waste water from an impound less than a mile upstream from an facility that draws in drinking water for the greater Gadsden area.

“Having such a toxic waste source so close to surface waters truly is a threat to safe public drinking water supplies,” Frank Chitwood of Coosa Riverkeeper was quoted as saying in a press release.

The EPA regulates solid waste through the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act of 1976. Coal ash was exempted from this act because of an amendment sponsored by Alabama congressman Tom Bevill, who represented the state’s coal-rich 4th District.

The amendment asked for further study before the material could be classified as hazardous. The EPA researched the topic at least two times in the coming decades and never determined coal ash to meet the standards of hazardous waste.

Much of the reasoning for the Bevill amendment was the size of the waste created by coal fired plants. According to a Congressional Research Service report, America’s 589 coal-fired power plants created 130 million tons of ash in 2011. That’s compared to 34 million tons of all hazardous waste created in the U.S. during the same year, the report states.

Sparked by a spill

National leaders began to revisit coal ash regulation after a site holding disposed ash from the Tennessee Valley Authority broke open, creating a massive spill in Kingston, Tenn. According to the EPA, coal ash covered millions of cubic yards of land and river, displacing residents, requiring hundreds of millions of dollars in cleanup costs and damaging the environment.

Much of the ash from the Kingston spill was sent to a landfill in Uniontown, Ala. Many residents who lived near the site went to a 2011 hearing in Montgomery to urge state lawmakers to deem it a toxic waste. According to an Associated Press report, those residents said the ash got on their cars, houses and on the ground near the dump.

In response to the Kingston spill, EPA officials promised new rules, which were proposed in 2010. The agency also held several months of public comment periods as well as two public hearings.

In 2013, several environmental groups brought a suit against the EPA for failing to act on the proposals. A court imposed the Friday deadline.

Watching the ashes

Sznajderman said Alabama Power’s coal-ash dams are inspected annually by the same groups that inspect the company’s larger, hydroelectric dams.

Sznajderman also said that any water discharged from its sites must be tested and meet quality standards before it is released.

“We have a strong record we believe of handling this material safely and appropriately,” he said.

Avner Vengosh, a professor of geochemistry and water quality at Duke University, is part of a team that has been researching coal ash and its environmental effects for five years. Working at sites such as Kingston and another spill in North Carolina, those researchers developed a way to identify contaminants from coal ash in the environment.

Vengosh said regulation of the material is essential.

More important than whether coal ash is classified as hazardous, he said, is who will monitor the material and enforce the standards.

Vengosh said his concern with leaving enforcement up to the states is that it will create a patchwork of laws in which some states have little manpower or resources to safeguard the public.

“It depends on the political situation of the states,” he said.

In all of the coal ash ponds Vengosh’s team studied, each one had elevated levels of contaminants like arsenic and selenium, he said.

Though companies test pond water before discharging it into a river or lake, he said, most states don’t require the companies to look for high levels of contaminants associated with coal ash.

Vengosh stressed that he does not study the direct health effects of coal ash, but said, “There’s no question or shortage of literature showing that elevated arsenic or chromium six in drinking water could be extremely harmful for human health.”

Vengosh said that his team’s research has demonstrated systematically that those contaminants appear in elevated levels in waterways near coal ash ponds.

Assistant Metro Editor Daniel Gaddy: 256-235-3560. On Twitter @DGaddy_Star.

I'm the assistant metro editor for The Anniston Star. I edit, post online stories and write the occasional story.