Overview of the Coal Ash Regulation

Environmental Training Resource
March 6, 2013 — 892 views  
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Coal Combustion Residuals (CCR) or coal ash is the residue that is left over from coal combustion in power plants and is collected by agencies for pollution control. The environmental issues of coal ash are structural failures in impoundments, and the leaching of landfills and impoundments into groundwater. A tragic spill in Kingston, TN in December 2008 emphasized the necessity of a national criterion for the regulation of CCR.

For the first time, EPA is proposing the regulation of coal ash to address the dangers of waste disposal from power producers and electric utilities. EPA has proposed two options, one where CCR residuals would be listed as special wastes, and the other where EPA would regulate CCR as a non-hazardous waste.

Proposed Rule on Coal Ash Regulation

The proposed rule will affect independent power producers, facilities for electric utility, hazardous waste disposal, and treatment facilities. It will not affect captive electric plants that are coal-fired and used by universities or industries. The two options proposed by the EPA for regulating the CCR disposal are under Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), under subtitle ‘C’ or subtitle ‘D’. The engineering needs of both the options are similar. The primary differences are in the implementation and the enforcement. The ‘Bevill exemption’ for the beneficial uses of CCR remains in place. In addition, mine filling has not been covered by the proposal.

Under subtitle ‘C’ of RCRA, the coal ash will be listed as special waste and will be subjected to existing subtitle ‘C’ requirements. Groundwater-monitoring systems must be installed in all impoundments and landfills. New landfills must have composite liners installed and groundwater-monitoring devices in place before the landfill begins operation. All surface impoundments must install composite liners within five years, or close within an additional two years. Practically, this will slowly phase out surface impoundments. This could cost up to $1.5 billion/year, but add a benefit of up to 7.4 billion/year.

Under subtitle ‘D’ of RCRA, coal ash will remain a 'non-hazardous waste'. Many engineering requirements in this section are similar to the subtitle ‘C’ proposal, such as, ground water monitoring, structural stability requirements, and liners. The Owner or operator is required to obtain certification from independent professional engineers, document how standards are being met while keeping the State, and the operating record notified. They should also maintain a website on a public domain that contains the documentation. This will cost up to $587 million/year, and give a benefit of up to $3 billion/year.

Understanding EPA’s role

As a part of an ongoing effort to evaluate CCR management in surface impoundments and similar units, EPA is posting assessments, information request letters, and plans for action in power plants. It also includes the assessment of the units themselves. Using a list of facilities from a Department of Energy survey, EPA signed request for information letters under the authority of Comprehensive Emergency Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) and then sent them to the corporate offices.

These information requests asked very specific questions about the structural integrity of impoundments, landfills, or similar units which store or dispose any byproducts. There are also specific questions considering the potential hazard rating for each unit, with clear indication of the authority that provided the rating, and the year when each unit was commissioned or expanded.

Also required is information regarding materials contained temporarily or permanently in this unit, designer of the unit, people in charge of monitoring and inspection, date of last assessment of safety, date of last inspection by State or Federal authority, surface area, and the total capacity of the units. EPA also requests information on the history of known spills or unpermitted releases and current the owner and operator of the facility. If EPA finds that any unit is posing a threat to the environment or the health of humans, appropriate action will be taken to protect both the environment and public health.

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