RALEIGH, North Carolina — New coal ash regulations issued by the Obama administration last month are not expected to greatly impact North Carolina, where the state law passed in the wake of February's massive Dan River spill generally exceeds the federal requirements.
The long-awaited rules announced Dec. 19 by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency are the first nationwide standards on the disposal of coal ash, the waste left over when coal is burned to generate electricity. The ash contains low but potentially harmful levels of such toxic chemicals as arsenic, mercury, chromium and thallium.
The new standards treat coal ash as a non-hazardous solid waste, triggering disposal requirements like those applied to household garbage and kitchen scraps.
Environmentalists had pushed for the EPA to classify coal ash as a hazardous waste, citing hundreds of cases nationwide where leaky unlined waste pits like those scattered across North Carolina had tainted groundwater and nearby rivers.
Electric utilities and the coal industry pushed for less stringent standards, arguing that labeling the ash as hazardous would hinder efforts to reuse the waste to make concrete, asphalt and residential wall board. Congress originally exempted coal ash from being treated as a hazardous waste in the late 1970s.
"It's disappointing that the EPA did not put in place a simple, straight-forward, common sense rule that you can't have coal ash stored in these unlined pits along our major waterways," said Frank Holleman, a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center. "On the other hand, EPA has made it clear that these are bare minimum standards, along with all the other regulations the industry faces. Citizens groups will be ready, willing and able to take actions to ensure these rules are enforced."
The new EPA standards had been in the works for six years, initiated in the wake of the nation's worst ever coal ash spill at a power plant in Tennessee during 2008. Since then, the EPA has documented 132 cases in which coal-fired power plant waste damaged rivers, streams and lakes, and 123 where it has tainted underground water sources, in many cases legally.
The new rules will boost monitoring for leaks and controls on dust blowing from waste sites, while requiring companies to make testing results public. They also set standards for closing waste sites, and require those that are structurally deficient or tainting waterways to close.
The new rules would also apply to closed coal ash ponds at sites where utilities still have active operations, such as the Duke Energy plant in Eden, North Carolina, where the sudden collapse of a drainage pipe triggered a massive spill in February that coated 70 miles of the Dan River in gray sludge.
Duke was operating a new natural gas plant on the property at the time of the spill, and no longer creating coal waste. But prior to the spill, tests showed it was among 32 unlined pits being operated by the company in the state and tainting groundwater in violation of state standards.
But the new federal regulations do not cover sites at shuttered power plants. And in some cases across the country, that could allow existing landfills that do not meet the new standards to continue to operate.
Rep. Chuck McGrady, a legislator who helped draft North Carolina's law, said he doesn't anticipate the new federal rules having any effect on the state's efforts. The state law requires Duke to either remove or cap all of its ash pits by 2029.
"I do not expect there will be any effort to weaken the North Carolina law to bring it into line with the federal regulations," said McGrady, R-Henderson. "North Carolina law will soon close functioning coal ash ponds and begin the cleanup of the remaining ones."
Associated Press environmental writer Dina Cappiello contributed.
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