On May 17, 2023 the U.S.Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced its proposal to expand regulation of coal ash, which is the toxic byproduct of coal combustion. The Coal Combustion Residuals (CCR) rule finalized by EPA in 2015 exempted coal ash stored in legacy ponds and landfills, even though the toxic waste at these legacy sites has contaminated groundwater across the country with heavy metals and other harmful pollutants. Coal ash ponds and landfills are disproportionately located in low-income communities and communities of color, putting these communities at an increased risk of being exposed to the toxic pollutants found in coal ash.
The new rule proposed by EPA extends federal requirements to monitor, close, and clean-up older landfills, legacy ponds, and fill sites that were previously excluded from federal regulations. These proposed revisions are in response to two successful citizen suits that were brought by a coalition of community and environmental organizations, represented by Earthjustice, in 2015 and in 2022 to force EPA to address legacy ponds–coal ash impoundments at coal plants that stopped generating power before October 17, 2015–and inactive landfills–landfills that stopped receiving waste after October 17, 2015. Clean Water Action was a plaintiff in the 2015 citizen suit that challenged EPA over its failure to regulate legacy coal ash ponds in the 2015 CCR rule.
Though EPA’s proposal is a significant step toward cleaning up toxic coal ash sites across the country, it fails to address ponds that did not have water in them as of October 2015 or after the 2015 CCR went into effect. Landfills at former coal plants sites that do not also have legacy ponds onsite are exempt from EPA’s proposal. Coal ash that was used as construction fill at schools, playgrounds, and other public spaces is also exempt from this proposed rule.
EPA is accepting comments on the proposed rule through July 17, 2023. EPA will also host an in-person public hearing on its proposal in Chicago on June 28, 2023 and a virtual public hearing on July 12, 2013. Clean Water Action and our allies will be urging EPA to strengthen its proposal to ensure that coal ash disposal sites at both current and retired power plants do not contaminate groundwater and the environment. A strong coal ash rule will provide some long overdue relief to the communities that have been most impacted by this toxic pollution and aligns with the Biden administration’s commitment to advance environmental justice.