EPA announced yesterday that it plans to develop national standards to address wastes from coal burning plants that are presently either land disposed or used as fill in mining. However, the agency will not classify the ash and sludge as toxic hazardous waste.
It was a decision that prompted praise from the utilities and dissension from environmental groups that have argued the waste is contaminating public water supplies.
Combustion waste is currently exempted from federal regulation, but these wastes contain toxic metals that, when improperly disposed, may pose a threat to public health and the environment.
EPA acted after a federal court declined to grant an extension request so that the agency could utilize upcoming scientific analysis in making a more complete determination about the waste.
In March, EPA proposed that coal ash be treated as a hazardous substance because of evidence that the waste might be more hazardous than previously thought.
The draft proposal ran into stiff opposition from the Department of Energy and other agencies, prompting EPA Administrator Carol Browner to try to seek a delay, despite a court order that had set a deadline of yesterday for action.
U.S. District Judge Thomas F. Hogan late yesterday refused to give EPA any more time, prompting the agency to issue its decision a few hours later.
Although EPA is concerned because combined wastes generated from utilities can have serious effects on human health, it does not believe that regulation of the materials as hazardous waste is justified.
For now, EPA''s federal standards will urge states to require liners at disposal sites and regular monitoring of water sources near such sites, agency officials said. But under this approach, EPA could not require state action.
"After careful review of the present disposal of these wastes, we believe these additional measures are needed to ensure that public health and the environment are protected," said EPA Acting Deputy Administrator Michael McCabe. "If the states and industry do not take steps to address these wastes adequately or if EPA identifies additional risk to public health, the agency will revisit this decision to determine whether a hazardous waste approach is needed."
The agency''s decision has yielded disappointment from many environmental and public health groups.
Environmentalists have complained that more than 100 million tons of coal waste, laced with arsenic, mercury and other toxic metals, is contaminating water supplies because of lax controls by many states and no regulation from Washington.
"This decision -- to leave the citizens at the mercy of flawed state laws -- is based on politics, not science," said Jeff Stant of Hoosier Environmental Coalition, an Indianapolis-based group that has conducted is own independent examination of toxic pollution from power plant waste. "We have provided EPA with scientific proof of more than 60 instances of ecological damage and health risks caused by dumping of unregulated coal combustion waste. And we fear that is just the tip of the iceberg."
States at the center of the controversy, including Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Texas, could have a fallout in the presidential race.
The four states are among the leaders in power plant waste and environmentalists have singled out Texas for poor enforcement of coal waste disposal. For example, some states, like Texas, don''t even require a permit if the waste is disposed of within 50 miles of the power plant.
Environmentalists contend the agency''s action follows on the heels of a political pressure campaign directed at the Senate and the House to carry the polluting industries'' message to the White House.
"Good science has been abused by bad politics," said Carolyn Johnson of the Citizens Coal Council, a national federation of 53 grassroots groups working for clean water and a healthy environment in coal mining communities. "The electric utilities -- the nation''s biggest polluters -- have poured millions of dollars into campaign contributions, and it seems to have paid off, at least for now. This decision by the administration gives the polluters a green light to dump their poisons wherever they want."
The electric utility industry maintains the coal ash -- often dumped with no more safeguards than normal trash -- poses no threat because of the low concentration of toxic metals.
It also says there is no clear evidence it is responsible for contaminating waterways or underground aquifers.
by Virginia Sutcliffe