Trump Administration Eases Coal-Ash Disposal Regulations

Published April 9, 2018

The U.S Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is revising Obama administration rules governing the disposal of coal ash, also known as coal combustion residuals (CCR), by electric utilities and independent power producers, to provide states and utilities greater flexibility in managing the waste product.

“Today’s coal ash proposal embodies our commitment with our state partners by providing them with the ability to incorporate flexibilities into their coal ash permit programs based on the needs of their states,” EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt said in a March 5 statement announcing the changes.

Coal ash is among the largest sources of industrial waste produced in the United States. According to the American Coal Ash Association’s Coal Combustion Product Use Survey, U.S. power plants produced nearly 130 million tons of coal ash in 2014. Like many other waste products, coal ash has a variety of alternative uses, including as a substitute for Portland cement in the manufacture of concrete and as a replacement for gypsum in wallboard used to sheath interior walls and ceilings.

EPA estimates its new proposal will save the regulated community between $31 million and $100 million per year. The new proposal would make more than a dozen changes to the 2015 final CCR rule, which established minimum national standards for the location, design, and operation of existing and new coal ash landfills and surface impoundments at more than 400 coal-fired power plants nationwide.

Court Ordered Changes

In response to a lawsuit challenging the 2015 CCR rule, in 2016 the Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit remanded the rule back to EPA, requiring the agency to take additional comments on the rule and reconsider four provisions. EPA’s new proposal addresses the four provisions the court remanded back to it, and it makes additional changes in response to comments received since the rule went into effect.

Among other changes, EPA would extend how long coal-fired power plants can maintain unlined coal ash ponds, and it would allow states to determine how frequently to test disposal sites for groundwater contamination.

The new proposal also allows the establishment of alternative performance standards for coal ash disposal units with operating permits issued under an existing state or federal coal ash permit program. Many of the proposed changes are based on provisions in EPA’s longstanding rules governing the disposal of municipal solid waste.

The proposal would also allow states to establish alternative, risk-based groundwater protection standards for facilities currently lacking an established maximum contaminant level, instead of setting allowable contaminants at natural background levels as is currently required. The proposal also requests public comments on whether facilities should be allowed to implement alternative, risk-based standards developed by certified professional engineers or by other means, subject to EPA oversight. In addition, EPA’s proposal requests public comments about whether the agency should modify restrictions on where CCR landfills and surface impoundments may be located.

Getting Jurisdiction Right

Jordan McGillis, a policy analyst with the Institute for Energy Research, says EPA’s proposal recognizes there are some environmental matters over which states, not the federal government, should have control.

“Not every issue is one for which the states should take the primary role rather than the federal government, but the risks of localized air and water pollution are clear examples of issues for which states should do just that,” McGillis said. “Specific circumstances vary from state to state, and there is no justification for implementing one coal ash program or one groundwater protection program across all 50 states.”

‘Key Element’ in Manufacturing

Craig Rucker, executive director of the Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow, says President Donald Trump recognizes better regulations can open up commercial opportunities.

“The Trump administration is taking a holistic approach to environmental and energy policy, recognizing regulatory improvements in one area can have benefits in other areas.” said Rucker. “Because coal ash has numerous commercial applications, it is an often overlooked key element in bringing back manufacturing in the United States, and these regulatory changes could help that effort.”

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