The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently announced plans to relax rules developed under the Obama administration for ponds storing toxic ash produced at coal-fired power plants and extend the timeline utility companies have to close the slurry ponds that house that material.
Right now, it doesn’t appear the proposed changes would have significant effects on coal ash ponds owned by Alabama Power or how the state’s largest electric utility plans to go about closing them.
As Lagniappe has reported, Alabama Power is waiting for approval from state regulators to begin its plan to “cap” and seal its handful of coal ash ponds around the state — including the 21-million-cubic-yard impoundment at Barry Steam Plant in Mobile County — to comply with new federal regulations.
Burning coal creates a number of harmful byproducts like arsenic, cadmium and cobalt, and for years, coal-fired power plants in the United States have mixed spent coal ash with water and stored that wet ash in large ponds — many of them unlined and sitting near lakes, rivers and underground aquifers.
Under the 2015 Coal Combustion Residuals (CCR) rule, ash ponds that were unlined or leaking contaminants at rates higher than what is permitted by law had to stop accepting new ash and be retrofitted or closed by 2018, but the EPA under President Donald Trump has added another year to that.
Then last week, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler announced a proposed rule change that would extend that deadline an additional year, to October 2020, and allow utilities more time to actually close their coal ash ponds — anywhere from three to eight additional years, under certain specific circumstances.
“Today’s proposed actions were triggered by court rulings and petitions for reconsideration on two 2015 rules that placed heavy burdens on electricity producers across the country,” Wheeler said last week. “These proposed revisions support the Trump administration’s commitment to responsible, reasonable regulations by taking a commonsense approach, which also protects public health and the environment.”
Supporters of the rollback have argued it will give some utilities more time to design and construct CCR units that can actually come into compliance with the current federal standards. EPA officials have also said most of the 450 coal ash sites around the U.S. are still moving toward closure.
In his statement announcing the proposed rule changes, Wheeler also noted the vast majority of the 2015 CCR rules implemented under Obama’s EPA remains in place and utilities are still “required to monitor groundwater, publicly report the data, and take action” if protection standards are exceeded.
However, one of the things newly required reporting has shown is that the vast majority of plants with unlined coal ash ponds are contaminating nearby groundwater — including some that were tested after being closed. Alabama Power was fined by the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) for exceedances at all of its locations in 2018 and then again in May after arsenic and radium were found in groundwater monitoring wells at Plant Gadsden, which had already been capped at the time.
That’s one reason why pushing back the deadline for closing out-of-compliance ponds hasn’t sit well with environmental groups like the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC), which have fought legal battles for years over the effects coal ash pollution can have on the environment and human health.
Frank Holleman, one of SELC’s lead attorneys on coal ash issues, described the EPA’s announcement last week as a “giant step backward in protecting communities and clean water.”
“With this proposed rule, EPA bends over backward to let polluting power plants drag their feet on installing long-available pollution controls — or get out of doing so entirely,” he said. “At industry’s request, this proposal will allow polluters to dump more [toxins] into our lakes and rivers even though available technologies to control this pollution have been demonstrated at power plants across the nation.”
Even though there may be greater flexibility for some companies, it doesn’t appear that is going to change Alabama Power’s plans, at least not at the moment. A spokesperson told Lagniappe this week the company was reviewing the proposed changes, but would continue to move forward with its closure plans.
As has been reported, those plans are unique to each pond being closed, but like the state’s other utility companies, Alabama has chosen to close all of its coal ash ponds using a “cap in place” method — meaning the ponds will be dewatered, consolidated and then covered pretty much where they sit now.
Cap in place is permitted by the EPA, but it also allows — and in some cases, encourages — utilities to dig up their spent coal ash and move it to a lined landfill away from the water. Environmental groups have advocated for removal because capped ponds have still shown a tendency to leech into nearby groundwater and because, like Barry, some sit along the coast and are susceptible to natural disasters.
Alabama Power has downplayed those concerns while maintaining that the cap in place approach is safe and moving millions of tons of coal ash would take too much additional money and time.
While the cost and timetable of a full-scale removal has been debated, Casi Callaway, executive director of Mobile Baykeeper, said if utilities like Alabama Power are being granted more time to close coal ash ponds like the one at Plant Barry, they should use that time to do it in the safest way possible.
“Alabama Power’s toxic ash has been sitting by the river for nearly 75 years,” Callaway said. “It’s time for them to do the right thing and dig it up and move it to an upland, lined landfill, away from vulnerable communities for the long-term protection of our economy, families and natural resources.”
So far, Alabama Power has stayed the course with regard to its plans to cap in place the pond at Plant Barry and at a handful of other plants across the state. It’s also worth noting that, unlike some utilities in other areas of the country, Alabama Power has already moved forward with several closure plans and already permanently closed one of its ponds at Plant Gadsden.
At the moment, ADEM is considering whether to grant Alabama Power a state permit that would allow it to close the pond at Plant Barry as planned. It will also soon be reviewing a remediation plan for removing the coal ash that’s been shown to be in the groundwater there. Though it’s unclear when, the utility originally had tentative plans to host public meetings on its closure plan before the end of the year.
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