A new rule from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will allow power plants to discard coal ash in unlined ponds through April of next year. In some cases, that deadline can be pushed back as far as 2028.
Coal ash is the solid waste left behind when a power plant burns coal. The residue is often mixed with water and discarded in ash ponds. If those ponds aren't properly sealed, heavy metals can leach into nearby groundwater.
High-profile coal ash spills pushed the Obama administration to introduce the first national regulations for the waste product in 2015. The rule included a 2019 deadline for initiating the sealing or closure of unlined ponds.
But in 2018, the EPA decried those regulations as "one-size-fits-all" and proposed revisions that included suspending groundwater monitoring requirements for certain ponds and revising maximum contaminant standards.
Those plans were undermined, though, when a D.C. appellate court unanimously moved to strengthen the 2015 rule with additional regulations.
Now, the EPA has published "Part A" of a rule it calls "A Holistic Approach to Closure." The rule complies with the D.C. court decision by reclassifying clay-lined ponds as unlined and establishing plans to make coal ash monitoring data more accessible to the public.
But the rule also allows plant operators an extended deadline - until April - to close or retrofit unlined ponds. In cases where plants prove an inability to meet that deadline, they have until 2024. Certain ponds larger than 40 acres don't need to close until 2028.
The court stated in its ruling that the extensions would result in cost savings for industry. In a press release, EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler added that the rule would "enhance protections for public health while giving electric utilities enough time to retrofit or replace unlined impoundment ponds."
Lisa Evans, an attorney with the law organization Earthjustice, advocated for environmental interests in the D.C. court case. She said that she expects to challenge the rule in court.
"By our evaluation and I think any future evaluation by a court, these rules are not protective," said Evans. "They're protective of the industry pocketbook, but they need to be protective of human health and the environment."
The new rule may be especially pertinent to Wyoming. A 2019 report that surveyed ash ponds nationwide found that two of the top 10 most contaminated sites were located in the state.
In its Spring Regulatory Agenda, the EPA announced plans for "Part B" of its new coal ash regulations, scheduled to take effect in September.
That proposed rule would allow certain unlined ponds to continue operating and allow for the dumping of coal ash into ponds already undergoing closure. Such placement would be characterized not as disposal, but as "beneficial use."