Waterkeepers Chesapeake Demands All Communities be Protected from Toxic Coal Ash

Waterkeepers Chesapeake submitted comments today opposing the revisions to the definitions of “coal pile” and “beneficial use.” These revisions to EPA’s “Hazardous and Solid Waste Management System; Disposal of Coal Combustion Residuals from Electric Utilities,” rule, or the “CCR” rule would increase the risk of contamination and health impacts from coal ash. In addition, Waterkeepers Chesapeake submitted comments on behalf of 152 individuals opposing this rollback of EPA protections against exposure to toxic coal ash.

Here in the Chesapeake Bay region, our local Waterkeepers have spent the last several years taking action to ensure the cleanup of toxic coal ash sites. Several of our communities have been impacted by the legacy of toxic coal ash that has been stored in leaking ponds along the banks of the Potomac, James, Patuxent, Susquehanna and many other rivers and streams. These coal ash ponds have contaminated groundwater and surface waters, threatening the drinking water sources for millions of people. This threat has caused a legacy of environmental injustice issues in communities such as those in the Patuxent River watershed that have an unusually high number of coal-fired power plants situated in low income communities of color. Despite some progress in state protections for these toxic sites, Waterkeepers continue to identify new coal ash pits that are leaking toxins and heavy metals into our rivers. In just the past few weeks, the Potomac Riverkeeper found continuing coal ash discharge violations at a power plant in Morgantown, Maryland, that are polluting the Potomac River.

The 2015 Coal Ash Rule required every coal-fired power plant across the country to prevent water pollution from its waste piles in a number of ways — including the suppression of dust and polluted run-off, increased inspections, groundwater monitoring, and cleaning up contaminated waterways. With the monitoring data that came about from this Rule, 91% of the 265 coal-fired plants that collected data pollute groundwater with dangerous levels of toxic contaminants from coal ash. This data would suggest that the EPA should bolster protections surrounding this toxic contaminants, but the proposed rule instead would weaken safeguards that are meant to protect our waterways and communities from this extremely hazardous waste.

EPA is now focusing on making it easier for companies to irresponsibly store and dispose of coal ash. More specifically, the proposed rule would:

  • Make it easier for companies to keep ash in “storage piles” for indefinite periods of time without requiring clear measures to prevent contamination. Coal ash waste piles are more dangerous than landfills because greater amounts of toxic waste are exposed to wind and water, causing ash to become windblown and leak into groundwater.
  • Make it easier to use large amounts of coal ash as fill in construction sites. Incredibly, the rule allows companies to keep the public completely in the dark when coal ash is used as fill at construction sites, even though EPA’s own research has shown that coal ash fill can contaminate drinking water and waterways. Communities would have no idea that their groundwater and surface water are at risk of being poisoned by toxic coal ash. Companies would only have to demonstrate that the coal ash fill would not cause environmental harm when it is used in high-risk areas — areas such as above aquifers and near schools, playgrounds and homes that we should not be dumping any coal ash into in the first place.

EPA’s coal ash disposal standards should ensure that the short-term storage and final disposal of coal ash are always done in a way that ensures no further contamination. Instead, these revisions will make it more likely that companies will cut corners and release toxic pollutants into nearby waterways and communities.

Relaxing common sense, science-based rules now would mean ignoring the lessons learned from the coal ash accidents in Tennessee and North Carolina and ignoring the progress made in safe disposal of coal ash that in states like Virginia and North Carolina. The best way to stop pollution from leaking out of unlined coal ash sites and into groundwater and surface water is to remove the coal ash from leaking storage ponds on the banks of our rivers. However, in order to prevent this toxic pollution from burdening other communities, the coal ash needs to be transported, stored, and disposed of responsibly. Communities across our region are struggling with impacts from decades of irresponsible storage and disposal of toxic coal ash. The last thing EPA should be doing is putting more communities in harm’s way.