E.P.A. Announces Crackdown on Toxic Coal Ash From Landfills

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The Biden administration is moving to close a loophole that had exempted hundreds of inactive coal ash landfills from rules designed to prevent heavy metals like mercury and arsenic from seeping into groundwater, the Environmental Protection Agency said Wednesday.

Coal ash, a byproduct from burning coal in power plants, contains lead, lithium and mercury. Those metals can pollute waterways and drinking water supplies and have been linked to health effects, including cancer, birth defects and developmental delays in children. They are also toxic to fish.

The proposed regulation, part of a settlement between the E.P.A. and environmental groups, would require those responsible for the coal ash to monitor groundwater supplies and clean up any contamination from the landfills.

Michael S. Regan, the E.P.A. administrator, said the rule would help to protect low-income communities of color, where the overwhelming number of old landfills are located.

“Many of these communities have been disproportionately impacted by pollution for far too long,” Mr. Regan said in a statement.

Why It Matters: The E.P.A. says the rule will protect public health.

Burning coal for electricity pollutes the air and releases planet-warming greenhouse gases, but some of its most dangerous elements are found in the ash, which is stored in ponds or dry landfills. About half of all the coal ash in the United States — more than a billion tons, according to one study — has gone unregulated.

The new rule is expected to face opposition from utilities and fossil-fuel supporters in Congress, including Senator Joe Manchin III, Democrat of West Virginia, who has personal financial ties to the coal industry.

The proposal comes on the heels of a Biden administration move to slash greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. That prompted Mr. Manchin, the top recipient of oil and gas industry campaign contributions last year, to accuse the Biden administration of being “hellbent on doing everything in their power to regulate coal and gas-fueled power plants out of existence.”

The regulation proposed Wednesday would cover what the agency calls “legacy” coal ash landfills, not current power plant operations.

“For far too long, a large portion of toxic coal ash around the U.S. was left leaching into drinking water supplies without any requirement that it be cleaned up,” said Lisa Evans, the senior counsel for Earthjustice, an environmental group that led the lawsuit to force the E.P.A. to address the unregulated landfills.

Background: A 2008 disaster spurred the first coal ash regulations.

In 2008, the six-story-tall dike holding back a massive pond of coal waste at a plant in Kingston, Tenn., collapsed, releasing more than a billion gallons of ash and slurry into the surrounding community.

The Kingston coal ash spill remains one of the largest industrial disasters in U.S. history and helped spur the first federal controls on the disposal of coal ash, which were implemented in 2015. The rules imposed stringent inspection and monitoring requirements at coal plants and mandated that plants install technology to protect water supplies from contamination.

But landfills that stopped receiving ash before October 2015 were exempt from the rules.

The E.P.A. said Wednesday those inactive landfills, which are usually not monitored, were more likely to be unlined, making them prone to leaks and structural problems.

In January, the E.P.A. proposed regulations that would force utilities to strengthen safeguards for toxic coal ash pollution from power plants — requirements that had been delayed by President Donald J. Trump’s administration. Under Mr. Trump, who promised a comeback for the coal industry, the E.P.A. sought to allow some leaking coal ash storage ponds to remain in operation and some unlined ponds to stay open indefinitely.

What’s Next

The proposed rule, which was published Wednesday in the federal register, is subject to a 60-day public comment period and is expected to be finalized by next spring.

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