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Thursday, Oct. 17, 2013 12:01 am

Coal ash ruling could mean new restrictions

Illinois group in lawsuit over regulation of coal waste

 A federal judge has ordered the United States Environmental Protection Agency to pass regulations on disposal of coal ash, which could have far-reaching implications for Illinois’ rebounding coal industry and coal plant operators like Springfield City Water, Light and Power.

The Illinois-based environmental group Prairie Rivers Network participated in the lawsuit that prompted the decision from a federal court in Washington, D.C. However, the judge hasn’t issued his final decision on the case, meaning the extent of possible changes is unknown.

Coal ash is a solid waste product of burning the energy-dense mineral that is common in Illinois. Coal-burning power plants in Illinois produce more than 4.4 million tons of coal ash annually, and Illinois companies dispose of coal ash from at least six states, according to Prairie Rivers Network. The ash contains toxic substances like mercury, cadmium and arsenic, which can leach into water supplies during storage. In a particularly high-profile accident in 2008, a broken coal ash impoundment in Tennessee dumped more than one billion gallons of coal ash into a river, causing $1.2 billion in damage.

U.S. EPA worked from 2001 to 2010 on two sets of rules for coal ash regulation. Neither set of regulations was enacted, however, prompting the lawsuit by Prairie Rivers Network and other groups.

In the lawsuit, the plaintiffs cite a federal law that requires U.S. EPA to review its regulations every three years. District Judge Reggie Walton agreed with the plaintiffs that the government agency hadn’t upheld its duty. However, Walton’s preliminary order is quite vague, leaving questions about how he’ll order the agency to proceed. Walton gave himself a 30-day window to issue a more detailed order.

Traci Barkley, a water resources scientist with Prairie Rivers Network, says the group counts the decision as a victory, even though it will likely only apply to coal ash created by coal-burning power plants. The two rule structures proposed by U.S. EPA don’t cover coal ash generated by manufacturing facilities or similar activities, Barkley says. Currently, household garbage is more strictly regulated than coal ash, she says.

Barkley says a growing concern among environmentalists is that the government will pass regulations that don’t address ash being trucked back to the mines that produced the coal.

“That brings with it a whole other host of issues,” she said. “You’re putting it back underground where groundwater seams are now exposed.”

She notes that the Republican-controlled U.S. House has passed several bills that seek to strip U.S. EPA of its authority to regulate coal ash.

“The lawsuit was really an effort to say to U.S. EPA, ‘This is your job. You do have authority to regulate this,’ ” Barkley said, adding that the proposed coal ash rules generated the most public comments – more than 500,000 – of any federal rulemaking in history.

Amber Sabin, spokeswoman for Springfield City Water, Light and Power, says the utility opposes regulating coal ash as a hazardous waste.

“Regulating [coal ash] as hazardous would increase the cost for its reuse and dissuade many recyclers from accepting it, significantly driving up the cost to CWLP and its ratepayers without any benefits to our customers or the environment,” Sabin said.

CWLP stores some of its coal ash in ponds near Lake Springfield, sells some to vendors for incorporation into products like cement, and sends some back to the Viper Mine near Elkhart, which supplies the coal used in CWLP’s Dallman 4 power plant.

Sabin said the utility’s coal ash ponds are already regulated by the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency and the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. She said inspections of the ponds have shown no weaknesses like the type that caused the massive spill in Tennessee. Eliminating the utility’s coal ash ponds would cost tens of millions of dollars, Sabin says. Until the federal judge’s final order is released, however, she says it’s too early to tell what the final effect will be on CWLP.

Traci Barkley, the scientist with Prairie Rivers Network, says the environmental community hopes the lawsuit will lead to passage and revision of other coal ash rules. She says the State of Illinois’ coal ash rules are 30 years old and outdated. For example, the official test of how coal ash toxins leach into groundwater doesn’t match what actually happens in the real world, she says. However, she applauds the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency for taking steps like proposing rules on cleaning up coal ash ponds.

“We’re really pleased that our state agency has seen the problem with what’s in place,” she said. “But we know that having a state-by-state patchwork quilt of regulations is not appropriate, and we really hope the regulations for coal ash disposal are still managed at the federal level.”

Contact Patrick Yeagle at pyeagle@illinoistimes.com.

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