EPA faulted for not disclosing coal ash's recycling risks

Coal ash forms a thick layer on the banks of the first settling pond serving the Riverbend Steam Station in North Carolina.
Coal ash forms a thick layer on the banks of the first settling pond serving the Riverbend Steam Station in North Carolina. Jeff Willhelm/Charlotte Observer/MCT

WASHINGTON — The Environmental Protection Agency's inspector general reported this week that the EPA had improperly used an official website to promote ways of recycling the waste that's left over when power plants burn coal, commonly known as coal ash.

The inspector general's report says the website didn't tell the public that the EPA had decided that coal ash no longer should be dumped in empty pits and that it had concerns about the safety of other uses of the material in loose form, such as fertilizer and road fill.

The waste contains arsenic and other metals that can cause cancer and damage the nervous system in people who drink contaminated water, and it can kill fish and other aquatic life. The inspector general's report also says the EPA should have mentioned on the website that it had found seven cases of large-scale dumping of coal ash that had caused damage to health and the environment.

In other environmental action related to coal, the EPA's Region 3 on Friday recommended denying a permit for one of the largest mountaintop-removal coal mines ever planned, the Spruce No. 1 Mine in West Virginia.

Region 3's report says that contaminated rubble left when the mountaintop was blasted off would have been dumped in two streams that are "some of the very few remaining streams" in the heavily mined area that can be classified as "least degraded."

In addition, discharges from the mining operation probably would damage downstream areas and the wildlife there, the report says. The planned mine would remove more than 2,000 acres of forest and bury seven miles of streams.

EPA headquarters said that Region 3's report was "only one step in the process" and that the agency would consult with mine owner Arch Coal and state officials to see whether anything could be done to reduce the environmental impacts so that the permit could be granted. The agency said it planned to make a final decision later this fall.

The EPA has been revising guidelines on mountaintop mining at the same time that it's been considering how to regulate coal ash.

The agency proposed the first national regulation of coal ash after a 2008 spill from a power plant's coal ash storage pond covered 300 acres in Tennessee and polluted rivers.

The rule would require coal ash to be placed in lined landfills with groundwater monitoring. Placing it in empty mines no longer would be allowed as a "beneficial use." It's not yet clear what the agency will decide about other uses, such as fertilizer and highway embankments.

The EPA plans to continue to allow coal ash in products that encapsulate it in solid form, such as concrete.

The EPA and the coal industry had jointly promoted ways to recycle coal waste through the Coal Combustion Products Partnership since 2001. The program had a page on the EPA's official website that gave details about various uses for the waste.

The website included examples of how coal ash was reused that were written by industry or private researchers. In violation of its own policies, the EPA allowed the use of its logo on recycled ash products and didn't add disclaimers saying that the information was provided by people who didn't work for the agency.

The EPA stopped participating in the Coal Combustion Products Partnership in May while it was working on the proposed regulation. The inspector general's report says the agency should have updated its website to make it consistent with what the EPA said in the proposed rule.

The inspector general's office said that it first discussed the problems with the agency on June 23, and that afterward the EPA removed content from the website.

The EPA said in a statement Friday: "We recognize that some of the concerns raised in the report highlighted areas where we needed to make improvements in our internal processes." It said it would take greater care in posting material to the website.

A major decision the agency must make is whether coal ash should be regulated as a hazardous substance under the law, with federal enforcement, or as a nonhazardous substance, which would leave enforcement up to the states, as it is now.

Industry groups have argued that if the feds regulate coal ash as a hazardous waste, concrete and other products legally made with it will be stigmatized.

A comment period on the rule ends Nov. 19. After that, the EPA will analyze the comments and produce a final version of the rule.

Coal plants produce about half of U.S. electricity. They generate more than 130 million tons of coal waste, the nation's second largest industrial waste stream after mining waste.


Region 3 decision on Spruce No. 1 mine

Inspector general's report on EPA's coal ash products website


Tennessee cleanup sends coal ash, anxiety, to Alabama site

EPA postpones decision that would toughen coal ash rules

Study of coal ash sites finds extensive water contamination

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