Court Decision Could Determine Coal Power Plants’ Futures

Published March 15, 2019

A pending decision by the Washington, D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals on deadlines for closing or repairing certain coal ash facilities could lead to the premature closing of scores of coal-powered electricity plants across the country, potentially hampering the reliability of the nation’s electric power grid.

Coal ash, also known as coal combustion residuals, is produced when coal is burned as fuel to produce electricity at power plants. Though generally considered part of a coal power plant’s waste stream, coal ash is often recycled to make a variety of products, such as concrete and drywall.

Tighter Obama-Era Restrictions

In 2015, the Obama administration imposed new federal rules regulating the disposal of coal ash, including requiring disposal sites and storage ponds that had violated groundwater protection standards to be lined or closed within six months of the rule taking effect. Obama’s EPA extended the time period coal ash storage facilities had to comply with the law until October 2016.

Industry groups and environmental activists alike challenged the 2015 regulations in court. Industry groups argued, among other things, the deadlines were too short and complying with them would undermine the stability of the electric power supply. Environmentalists challenged the rules for allowing unlined coal ash storage ponds to stay open indefinitely if they have not been found to contribute to groundwater contamination.

New Rules, New Challenge

In the midst of the court battle, in July 2018 the Trump administration issued new rules which, among other changes to the 2015 regulations, extended until late 2020 the deadline for affected coal ash disposal sites to begin closing or retrofitting their unlined storage ponds.

Environmental activist groups challenged the Trump administration’s revisions in court. Joined by five other environmental lobbying groups, the Waterkeeper Alliance filed a motion in December 2018 asking the court to stay the extension or vacate it entirely. Their court filing calls the extension “plainly unlawful.”

In their January 22 response, attorneys for the Utility Solid Waste Activities Group (USWAG) and several electric utilities stated many power plants will have to close, disrupting the electric power supply in parts of the nation, if the court overturns the Trump administration’s deadline extension.

Without sufficient time to develop alternatives, power plants “will face the untenable choice of either ceasing power production—with the attendant risks to power reliability across the country—or continuing to use ponds that EPA says would have to close immediately if the deadline is vacated,” USWAG’s legal filing states. “[Overturning the extension] would cause regulatory uncertainty and significant disruption to the nation’s power supply and thus is wholly irresponsible and unnecessary.”

‘A Travesty of Justice’

The EPA also asked the D.C. Circuit Court to leave the extension in place.

Vacating the extension or other changes EPA made in July “could cause widespread disruptive consequences, potentially impacting the continued operation of these power plants, and the reliability of the power grid,” the EPA’s court filing states.

The Obama-era coal ash rules were about closing coal power plants, not protecting public health, says Jay Lehr, Ph.D., science director at The Heartland Institute, which publishes Environment & Climate News.

“This is a travesty of justice, which has no relationship to either the safety of coal power plants or effects on human health,” said Lehr. “It is nothing but a vendetta by those who want to stop the use of coal in an idiotic effort to force the nation onto an impossible electric grid run entirely on intermittent wind and solar power.”

‘It Would Be Foolish’

There is no evidence coal ash ponds are causing human health problems, but good reason for thinking closing them rapidly would harm the electric power supply, says David Wojick, Ph.D., a senior analyst with the Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow (CFACT).

“All the evidence indicates these coal ash ponds are harmless, so it would be foolish to rush their closure in such a way that threatens the electric power system,” said Wojick. “Most of these ponds were started 45 years ago or more and have operated ever since, never causing any contamination.

“We are still burning hundreds of millions of tons of coal a year to power America and will need to keep doing so for the foreseeable future,” Wojick said.

Bonner R. Cohen, Ph.D. ([email protected]) is a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research and a senior policy analyst with CFACT.