EPA ruling clamps down on Indiana coal ash waste

An EPA decision on Tuesday will bring changes to the way Hoosier coal-fired power plants handle toxic waste.

INDIANAPOLIS – The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said on Tuesday it will start taking its first important steps to tackle toxic wastewater generated by coal-fired power plants.

The agency has in part ruled that companies must stop dumping coal ash into uncoated storage ponds and must speed up plans to shut down leaking coal ash ponds.

Indiana has the highest number of coal ash ponds in the country per capita. The recent EPA ruling means some factories in Indiana will have to shut down these ponds months, if not years, ahead of schedule.

Indra Frank is the director of environmental health for the Hoosier Environmental Council (HEC), and said the EPA’s clarification means the state’s waterways could see less contamination from these sites.

“The two most important things we got from the EPA today are which of our coal ash disposal sites fall under the federal rule; and the fact that under federal rule they are not allowed to leave coal ash in contact with groundwater. So the net result is that we’re going to see better protection of Indiana’s water resources, ”Frank told 13News.

Waste coal ash is a toxic byproduct of burning coal to generate electricity. It contains toxic heavy metals that can pollute waterways, poison wildlife, and cause respiratory illness in people living near storage ponds.

In 2020, Indiana ranked third in the country for total coal consumption and coal consumption for power generation. Coal also provided fuel for more than 53% of Indiana’s net electricity generation that year.

The state’s heavy reliance on coal means it is home to over 80 of these toxic coal ash pits. These can release toxins – mercury, cadmium, arsenic – into surrounding groundwater and poison nearby drinking water supplies. Of the 100 million tonnes of annual ash or other waste produced by coal-fired power plants across the country, 5 million are generated in Indiana.

Most of Indiana’s coal pits are located in floodplains, so the waste is disposed of along Lake Michigan or state rivers like the Wabash or White rivers.

Pits are often unlined, so carcinogenic toxins can enter and poison groundwater more easily.

“When we leave these large garbage dumps in the floodplain, it means that future flooding could create a major spill. So the floodplain is truly one of the worst places for waste disposal,” Frank said. .

While other states have taken steps to transport their coal ash to surface waste centers, where it cannot so easily enter groundwater, no action has been taken in Indiana despite the large number of these sites.

“Unfortunately, Indiana has fallen behind in managing the disposal of coal ash. We have seen North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, Illinois, Tennessee and Georgia go from there. “forward with mining coal ash from the floodplain and these unpaved pits where it is. Indiana hasn’t really moved forward with that yet,” Frank said.

In 2015, the Obama administration became the first to regulate the storage and disposal of coal ash at the federal level. These rules were then weakened by the Trump administration in 2020 and then not enforced.

In Indiana, state regulators had the option of dividing what could have been a large coal ash pit into multiple ponds, thereby disqualifying the site from federal regulation.

HEC said several Indiana utilities and the Indiana Department of Environmental Management interpreted the 2015 rule in a way that allowed millions of tons of coal ash at multiple sites. state to remain in direct contact with the groundwater knowing that it was contaminated by the spilled coal ash.

“We have had erroneous interpretations of [the 2015] rule, so some of the cities in Indiana were deemed not to fall under federal rule. Today, the EPA made it clear which coal ash holdbacks fall under the rule and which do not. And that means we’re going to see better cleanup for Indiana, ”Frank said.

The recent EPA ruling clarified that coal ash leaks to any site anywhere in the country are prohibited, whether or not that site is a federally monitored coal ash pit.

The EPA also clarified the federal rule’s requirements for properly disposing of coal ash, testing groundwater near coal ash disposal sites, and cleaning up groundwater contamination from impoundments and landfills. coated.

EPA administrator Michael Regan said the move further ensures that the coal ash ponds meet environmental and safety standards.

“I have seen with my own eyes how coal ash contamination can harm people and communities. Coal ash storage ponds and landfills must operate and close in a way that protects public health and the environment, ”Regan said. “For too long, communities already disproportionately affected by high levels of pollution have been weighed down by improper disposal of coal ash.”

The EPA provided guidelines that applied to the disposal of coal ash across the country, but it specifically named two Indiana sites: the Clifty Creek Generating Plant in Madison and the Generating Plant. from Gallager to New Albany.

They have already denied requests to extend coal ash permits at factories in Ohio, Iowa, New York and Kentucky.

The EPA said a total of 57 facilities covered by the regulations have requested time extensions.

Despite Tuesday’s decision, environmental groups will continue to monitor the Statehouse.

“There is a group of bipartisan lawmakers bringing bills to the Statehouse on coal ash disposal and that these will help ensure that coal ash disposal remains safe in Indiana, even s “There are changes in the administration in Washington, DC, and changes in the way the rules are handled at the federal level,” Frank said.

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