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EPA's new coal-ash rule could weaken oversight of waste sites

An active coal-ash pond at the Meramec Energy Center in St. Louis County in February 2018.
File photo / Eli Chen
St. Louis Public Radio
Environmentalists say that the newly amended federal coal-ash rule will loosen oversight of coal-ash ponds and landfills and threaten water quality and human health.

The Environmental Protection Agency has changed its regulations to give states more authority over how utilities should dispose and monitor pollution from toxic waste generated by coal-fired power plants. Environmental advocates in Missouri and Illinois warn that the newly revised rule will not do enough to protect water quality and human health.

The amendments, approved Tuesday by acting EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler, lowered standards for several chemicals, such as lead, that are found in coal-ash waste. It also extends the deadline for utilities to close its coal-ash ponds and allows state officials to oversee and stop groundwater monitoring at coal-ash waste sites.

Environmental groups protested the change, arguing on the grounds that only engineers with qualified technical backgrounds to understand such sites should have that responsibility.

“State officials aren’t always professional engineers, and they can often be political appointees, and that means that you don’t have an engineer making decisions — you have someone who might be making decisions for political reasons,” said Andrew Rehn, water resources engineer at Prairie Rivers Network in Illinois.

The federal agency will continue to finalize parts of the coal-ash rule that it had established in 2015, which required Missouri to monitor its decades-old coal-ash ponds for the first time. In a press release issued Wednesday, the agency mentioned that the new changes would save about $30 million annually in regulatory costs.

“These amendments provide states and utilities much-needed flexibility in the management of coal ash while ensuring human health and the environment are protected,” Wheeler said. “Our actions mark a significant departure from the one-size-fits-all policies of the past and save tens of millions of dollars in regulatory costs.”

Missouri and Illinois are still drafting their own coal ash regulations.

“Having a federal rule that guarantees protection is really important, so as that federal rule backslides, what we can expect in Illinois also backslides,” said Rehn, the water resources engineer.

Coal ash contains a variety of chemicals that are known to cause harm to human health. Activists were disappointed to find that the revised rule did not include boron on its list of contaminants that regulators should monitor. Boron is a signature chemical of coal-ash waste that can damage human organs if it’s ingested in excessive quantities, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“For EPA to say, ‘If you find boron, that’s not an indication that action needs to be taken,’ is alarming,” said Andrew Knott, a Missouri Sierra Club campaign representative.

There are about three dozen coal-ash ponds in Missouri. More than a third belong to Ameren Missouri, which announced earlier this year that it plans to close all of its ponds by 2022.

The new changes to the federal rule aren’t likely to affect the company’s pond closure plans, said Craig Giessman, water-quality manager at Ameren Missouri. However, company officials are still reviewing the amendments.


Eli is the science and environment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.

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