EPA Announces Latest Action to Protect Communities from Coal Ash Contamination
Latest Proposal Would Protect Public Health and Water Sources from Legacy Coal Ash Sites and Hold Polluters Accountable
WASHINGTON – Today, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced the latest action to protect communities and hold polluters accountable for controlling and cleaning up the contamination created by the disposal of coal combustion residuals (CCR or coal ash), which can cause serious public health risks and leak into groundwater. The Agency issued a proposed rule that would require the safe management of coal ash dumped in areas that are currently unregulated at the federal level. This includes inactive power plants with surface impoundments that are no longer being used and historical coal ash disposal areas at power plants with regulated coal ash units. Because this proposal applies to legacy contamination or inactive units that no longer support current power plant operations, it is not expected to affect current power plant operations.
Coal ash is a byproduct of burning coal in power plants that, without proper management, can pollute waterways, groundwater, drinking water, and the air. Coal ash contains contaminants like mercury, cadmium, chromium, and arsenic associated with cancer and various other serious health effects. Today’s action delivers protections for underserved communities already overburdened by pollution, reflecting the Biden-Harris Administration’s whole-of-government commitment to advancing environmental justice.
“Ensuring the health and safety of all people is EPA’s top priority, and this proposed rule represents a crucial step toward safeguarding the air, groundwater, streams, and drinking water communities depend on,” said EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan. “Many of these communities have been disproportionately impacted by pollution for far too long. This proposal will better protect their health and our environment, and it will reflect our broader commitment to reduce pollution from the power sector in a way that ensures a reliable, affordable supply of electricity.”
Inactive coal ash surface impoundments at inactive facilities, referred to as “legacy CCR surface impoundments,” are more likely to be unlined and unmonitored, making them more prone to leaks and structural problems than units at facilities that are currently in service. These units are currently not regulated at the federal level — a gap that a federal court directed EPA to address in 2018. To address these concerns, EPA is proposing safeguards for legacy coal ash surface impoundments that largely mirror those for inactive impoundments at active facilities, including requiring the proper closure of the impoundments and remediating coal ash contamination in groundwater.
In addition, through implementation of the 2015 CCR rule, EPA found that power plants with regulated impoundments had also disposed of coal ash in areas outside of regulated units. These areas could include coal ash in surface impoundments and landfills that closed prior to the effective date of the 2015 CCR Rule, inactive CCR landfills, and other areas where coal ash is placed directly on the land. The Agency is proposing to apply certain protections in EPA’s coal ash regulations to these areas.
As EPA works to finalize the proposal, it will engage with the power sector and other groups to ensure this proposal reflects the Administration’s commitment to reduce pollution from the power sector while providing long-term regulatory certainty and operational flexibility.
EPA is collecting public comments on these proposals for 60 days through dockets in regulations.gov. EPA will also hold both in-person and virtual public hearings. For more information, visit this webpage.
Coal ash is a byproduct of burning coal in coal-fired power plants that can contain contaminants like mercury, cadmium, chromium, and arsenic associated with cancer and other serious health effects. Many facilities have stored coal ash in surface impoundments, which have the potential to leak or to fail, sending coal ash and its contaminants into water sources, including surface water and groundwater. On April 17, 2015, EPA issued national minimum standards for existing and new CCR landfills, as well as existing and new CCR surface impoundments at active facilities. That final rule did not establish requirements for inactive facilities.
On August 21, 2018, the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit vacated the exemption for inactive surface impoundments at inactive facilities and remanded the case to EPA for further action in accordance with the decision in Utility Solid Waste Activities Group, et al. v. EPA. In response, in October 2020, EPA requested comments and data on legacy CCR surface impoundments to assist in the development of future regulations for these CCR units. This proposed rule incorporates the information collected in that effort.
Learn about coal ash and EPA’s recent decisions, proposals, and settlements.