Updated coal ash standards will clean up hundreds of contaminated sites April 25, 2024

After nearly ten years, EPA has updated its standards regulating the management of coal ash, the toxics-laden waste that is left behind after coal is burned. PSR welcomes this long-overdue standard.

Coal ash, although kept out of sight of many communities, constitutes the second-largest industrial waste stream in the U.S., second only to mining wastes. For decades, power plants disposed of coal ash by dumping it in unlined ponds, landfills, and mines where the toxic pollution could leak into the air, waterways, and groundwater. Coal ash routinely contains the neurotoxin mercury, cancer-causing elements such as mercury, cadmium, chromium and arsenic, and other dangerous substances. As PSR described in our 2010 report, Coal Ash: The Toxic Threat to Our Health and Environment:

“Especially where there is prolonged exposure, these toxic metals can cause several types of cancer, heart damage, lung disease, respiratory distress, kidney disease, reproductive problems, gastrointestinal illness, birth defects, impaired bone growth in children, nervous system impacts, cognitive deficits, developmental delays and behavioral problems. In short, coal ash toxics have the potential to injure all of the major organ systems, damage physical health and development, and even contribute to mortality.”

According to the EPA, the new coal ash standard will better protect communities and ecosystems near active and inactive coal-burning power plants, “ensuring,” in EPA’s words, “that groundwater contamination, surface water contamination, fugitive dust, floods and impoundment overflows, and threats to wildlife are all addressed.” This establishes the expectation that the power sector, the country’s primary source of coal ash, will be held accountable for the toxic messes they have made. Power plant owners will need to remediate sites that are leaking; properly close coal ash ponds at inactive facilities, and remediate any coal ash contamination in groundwater.

The rule becomes effective six months after publication. PSR thanks EPA for finalizing this strong rule and creating a swift timeline for action.

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