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EPA decision not to classify coal ash as hazardous angers environmentalists

Environmental groups have long pushed for coal ash, a by-product of coal burning energy production that contains toxic contaminants, to be classified as a hazardous material. While the EPA announced new standards for storage and disposal, the agency decided to leave regulation with the states rather than the EPA. Dina Cappiello of the Associated Press joins Jeffrey Brown to discuss the new rules.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    The past few years, and a pair of major spills into waterways and communities have brought a whole new concern about the coal industry to the forefront. It's about a byproduct called coal ash.

    After a six-year battle, the Environmental Protection Agency has now set the first national standards for how to regulate and deal with it. But some argue the federal government pulled its punches.

    Jeffrey Brown has the story.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    December 22, 2008, more than a billion gallons of coal ash, a by-product of coal-burning energy production, mixed with water, burst through the banks of a containment pond in Kingston, Tennessee.

    The coal ash slurry flooded homes, farmland and poured into the Emory River, prompting what would become a billion-dollar cleanup. Earlier this year, more than 80,000 tons spilled from a Duke Energy holding pond into North Carolina's Dan River. According to the EPA, more than 100 such breeches, though usually smaller, happen every year.

    Coal ash contains toxic contaminants like mercury, arsenic and lead, and environmental groups have long warned holding ponds are not only prone to ruptures, but also leak into groundwater. They had pushed for coal ash to be classified as a hazardous material. That would give regulatory authority of the substance to the EPA.

    But in announcing new standards for coal ash storage and disposal today, EPA head Gina McCarthy said that power would remain with the states.

  • GINA MCCARTHY, Environmental Protection Agency:

    This rule sets a commonsense, consistent baseline for industries and states to follow, and that communities can rely on to prevent health risks, as well as costly cleanups.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Industry groups said they were pleased the EPA didn't classify coal ash as hazardous waste, but they said the new rules were still too tough.

    We learn more now about the new rules and the reaction to them from Dina Cappiello, national environmental reporter for the AP.

    So, Dina, the key question here was this — whether coal ash qualifies as a hazardous waste. What did the EPA say?

  • DINA CAPPIELLO, Associated Press:

    That it's a nonhazardous waste.

    They related it today like household garbage. So they chose to make it not hazardous and treat it under a different classification, which is basically the same classification we have as household trash.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    And what's the reasoning behind that?

  • DINA CAPPIELLO:

    The reason, the EPA said today, was it didn't — that the current record and the current evidence showed that it didn't meet the hazardous classification and through other measures they could protect communities and public health from these ash waste sites.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    The exemption from federal oversight has been there a long time.

  • DINA CAPPIELLO:

    Yes, Congress put it in place.

    I think what people don't understand is that, like, a lot of energy wastes are exempt, not only coal ash, but drilling wastes are exempt, coal mining waste is exempt, because Congress said so. But what they also said was, if you evaluate the waste and at some point in future time the risk is great and it should be classified as hazardous, you have the authority to do that.

    So that's what the EPA Was doing. So twice before, before today, it's the third time the EPA has said we're not going to do it as a hazardous waste.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    All right, so what did they do? What kind of new strictures did they put on?

  • DINA CAPPIELLO:

    So, in classifying it like a solid waste, like household trash, what that requires is that all new waste sites at power plants would have to have liners which protect groundwater. There will be monitoring requirements. There will be for closure if they don't use it anymore to basically take the water out and cap it so it's an impermeable barrier.

    And they would also have to, interestingly, let the public know and disclose the monitoring tests, so the public could actually police it and see if it's violating water quality standards.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Well, how much is known at this point? How many studies have been done about the environment or health consequences of the spills or leaks that have happened?

  • DINA CAPPIELLO:

    Well, lots.

    After the Tennessee Valley Authority spill in 2008, the EPA kind of went into high gear on this. And then we also had the Dan River case down in North Carolina. So, they actually went around and surveyed a lot of ponds, looking at their structural integrity, see what they were doing, so gathered a lot of information.

    And just because something is not classified as hazardous doesn't mean it doesn't have hazards. That's what the environmentalists were saying today, that this is hazardous. It has arsenic in it. It has lead in it. It has mercury in it, things that are actually in coal. And if those leach into the environment in certain quantities, it could be a risk, and that's why the environmentalists push for the hazardous waste…

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    And the environmental community is not happy today?

  • DINA CAPPIELLO:

    Very upset today.

    Let's face it. They have gotten a lot they have wanted on coal from the Obama administration, from the carbon rules to the mercury air pollution rules. They really wanted this to be a hazardous waste classification. And, furthermore, they wanted a strict deadline for closing all of the sites out there that don't meet these standards, and that didn't happen today.

    What the EPA Said is, we can deal with legacy sites, sites that are inactive and unlined, have no liner, that are operational landfills, but we have no authority at landfills if the power plant is no longer operational.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    And the coal industry's response?

  • DINA CAPPIELLO:

    The coal industry and the recycling industry — this is actually widely recycled — about 40 percent is recycled — are pleased with the rule.

    But, again, they want to work with Congress to make it very clear that the states are in charge of enforcement and actually to deal with those legacy sites so they have certainty going forward.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    So, very briefly, when you look at what might happen next, would it be legislative or legal or both?

  • DINA CAPPIELLO:

    I think that the new Congress is going to take it up.

    Senator Inhofe put out a statement with Senator Capito and said, we are going to look at this and we want to kind of revisit legislation that passed in 2013 in the House that would make it clear that states have the enforcement authority here.

    Now, that hasn't worked so well in the past. It's been kind of a patchwork quilt of regulation, some states controlling it like solid waste, like what the EPA said they had to today, some not, and enforcement varying depending on state budgets and how many sites are out there.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    All right, Dina Cappiello of the AP, thank you so much.

  • DINA CAPPIELLO:

    Thank you.

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