Crews remove ash from the W.S. Lee Steam Station in Belton, S.C. Credit: Duke Energy

Correction appended

With utility industry groups pressuring the EPA to change regulations on coal ash facility maintenance and cleanup, environmental activists in the Southeast worry that companies won’t be required to take full responsibility for long-term monitoring of coal ash ponds and landfills.

The Coal Combustion Residuals Rule put basic requirements in place for maintenance, cleanup, and groundwater monitoring, but long-term monitoring rules vary depending on if ash is moved and stored or if it’s capped in place. If it’s excavated and disposed in landfills, for instance, companies can be exempt from monitoring it long-term in the same way.

Now, the Utility Solid Waste Activities Group (USWAG), which represents electric cooperatives, municipal utilities, and major industry associations, is petitioning the EPA for a stay on provisions of the 2015 rule, calling it a “one size fits all approach” that is “ill-conceived and burdensome.”

Environmental groups worry that without the federal rule in place, decisions on how to monitor coal ash would be open to interpretation by companies that have been reluctant to clean up sites, since it could be up to states to decide how to create or enforce regulations.

Industry and environmental experts say that one of the biggest issues with coal ash is ensuring it is safely stored and groundwater and soil are monitored. Lined coal ash ponds must be monitored for 30 years, but ash excavated and disposed in landfills can be exempt from the same long-term monitoring processes.

“Long-term, we need to clean up these sites and we need to do it as quickly as possible with good environmental protection and human health protection,” says Chris Hardin, director and industry liaison for the Coal Ash and Liquid Management Office at UNC Charlotte. “We don’t want to go too fast or too slow on this.”

Most utilities store coal ash at or near power plants, combining it with water to make large ponds or piling it with municipal solid waste in landfills. After Tennessee Valley Authority’s massive coal ash spill in 2008 in Roane County, Tennessee, the EPA established the Coal Combustion Residuals Rule. Put into effect in 2015 and rolled out slowly since then, it requires utilities to abide by basic regulations for storing and maintaining coal ash like lining ponds with a protective layer so wet coal ash doesn’t seep into groundwater and perform basic monitoring for contamination. As part of the rule, when a coal ash facility closes, companies are also supposed to monitor the groundwater for 30 years.

Environmental groups criticized the rule for not being strict enough, mostly because it does not count coal ash as a hazardous waste. Many ponds and landfills remain unlined, risking soil and groundwater contamination. Environmental group Earthjustice estimates there are 1,400 coal ash sites across the U.S., and at least 200 have contaminated water sources. Many also have dams that are in danger of breaking. The bulk of these sites are in the Southeastern U.S.

There are a few ways utilities can clean up coal ash, including the most common, called “cap-in-place” storage, which is covering up a pond. There is also the option to bury the ash, excavate and distribute to landfills, recycle it, or stabilize it with concrete.

Since many ash ponds are unlined, cap-in-place storage puts groundwater at risk for contamination. That’s why several communities have sued utilities citing violations of the Clean Water Act. When companies excavate ash and dump it into landfills or bury it, however, they may be exempt from the same long-term groundwater contamination testing requirements.

“Under the current rule, if companies excavate the ash and put it in a lined landfill, there is some way they can let go of that responsibility [of monitoring it], but capping it in place they have 30 year monitoring obligation,” said Amelia Shenstone, campaigns director for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.

Even with the 30-year obligation, Shenstone added, there are few details about how things will be done with the least environmental impact, or how they will be monitored in the coming decades. And if the federal law is changed, states could have more flexibility in enforcing monitoring processes and it would be up to the EPA to enforce regulations.

The initial stages of cleanup efforts are occurring throughout the Southeast. For instance, Duke, which had a large coal ash spill in North Carolina in 2014, has 31 ash basins in North Carolina. Twenty-two of those basins will be excavated and nine are expected to be capped in place.

The cleanup efforts for many of these sites have been in the works for years, and will take more to complete. Duke, which says it will reuse some of the coal ash and store the rest in lined landfills, plans to increase rates to cover the cost of cleanup.

Similar issues are being hashed out elsewhere, Shenstone said: in Georgia, Georgia Power is excavating and drying out coal ash, then putting a cap on top of the piles, but many other ponds will be capped where they are. Alabama Power and Tennessee Valley Authority are using similar techniques. Florida utilities haven’t made significant moves to cap or excavate their coal ash ponds.

Dominion Energy in Virginia, which has millions of tons of coal ash at four sites, plans to treat and discharge the water and bury the remaining ash. South Carolina, on the other hand, has led in coal ash cleanup by lining storage facilities and has seen a 90 percent drop in arsenic in groundwater in some places.

However, utilities are asking for more flexibility in these cleanup efforts. Revising the rule to have similar flexibility as EPA regulations for other non-hazardous waste will “result in environmentally protective rules that are less burdensome,” said Jim Roewer, executive director of USWAG. “We are committed to complying with federal and state rules governing ash management, including those that establish monitoring programs, protection standards and when necessary, remediation or cleanup activities.”

Erin Culbert, a spokesperson for Duke Energy, said the utility is not advocating for an end to long-term monitoring. “We agree that’s an important aspect to managing ash responsibly.”

Shutting down coal ash facilities is an expensive and potentially hazardous affair, which is why more flexibility based on the type of site could be a good thing, Hardin said. For instance, utilities in Tennessee and Florida have challenges storing coal ash because of porous limestone and caves. Other facilities, like those in North Carolina, are just so massive it’s difficult to stabilize them safely, he added. “Typically, it’s a combination of cap-in-place, selective excavation and stabilization in place.”

Whichever processes utilities choose, and however the EPA rule plays out, communities and environmental groups pledge to continue to hold utilities accountable. But 30 years is a long time when there are no consistent standards for monitoring.

“There are issues with compliance with the already longstanding rules,” Shenstone said. “That’s why long-term monitoring is so important.”

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story misstated the number of Duke Energy coal ash facilities and included unclear language regarding possible implications of a challenge to EPA coal ash rules. 

Lyndsey Gilpin is a freelance journalist based in her hometown of Louisville, Kentucky. She compiles the Southeast Energy News daily email digest. Lyndsey is the publisher of Southerly, a weekly newsletter about ecology, justice, and culture in the American South. She is on the board of directors for the Society of Environmental Journalists.