Oklahoma Becomes First State to Manage Coal Ash Disposal

Published July 25, 2018

Oklahoma became the first state in the nation to receive approval from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to manage its program to dispose of coal ash, a residue produced when burning coal to generate electricity.

The coal industry had pressed for the release from federal control.

Scott Pruitt, EPA administrator at the time, said in a statement the move gives oversight to “those who are best positioned to oversee coal ash management—the officials who have intimate knowledge of the facilities and the environment in their state.”

Faster Complaint Resolutions Expected

Patrick Riley, environmental programs manager of the Solid Waste and Sustainability Unit at the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality, says the state being in charge of its own coal ash management program will benefit both electricity users and the regulated utilities and make it easier for people to obtain resolution of complaints.

“The state of Oklahoma is familiar with these facilities, having a long working relationship with them,” Riley said. “We understand how they were constructed and what the sites look like, and we have a robust compliance response system to address the concerns of Oklahoma residents. If a facility isn’t operating properly, the public can call a 1-800 number or email us 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and we’re obligated to respond to their complaint.

“Under the previous, federal program, the only way for a citizen to resolve a complaint was basically by filing a lawsuit,” said Riley. “We think it will be much easier to resolve a complaint with our system than it is through legal action.”

‘Better Positioned to Respond’

Riley says local control makes sense and will be more responsive to the public’s needs.

“The nearest EPA office to us is in Dallas, Texas, and it is responsible for five state and 66 tribal programs,” Riley said. “We’re in Oklahoma City, so we can be at these facilities very quickly, the farthest one being only a couple of hours away.

“We’re familiar with the state and its facilities and are better positioned to respond to the complaints or to assess compliance,” said Riley. “We’re happy to be the first state to go through the process and assume permitting authority. Maybe other states can learn from our example as they go through a similar process.”

Averting Unjustified Litigation

Byron Schlomach, director of the 1889 Institute, says regulatory structures should help protect companies from lawsuits hampering their operations and raising costs, but the federal government was doing the opposite until recently.

“Normally, regulatory structures can help to protect companies from the vagaries of lawsuits, but prior to the Trump administration, the EPA was doing all it could to create a litigation-fertile environment,” Schlomach said. “Oklahoma’s relatively swift action in reaching this agreement with EPA will help to keep power relatively cheap and protect us all from unjustified litigation.”

Kenneth Artz ([email protected]) writes from Dallas, Texas.