Coal Ash Ruling Will Generate Piles of State-level News

September 12, 2018

TipSheet: Coal Ash Ruling Will Generate Piles of State-level News

Right now is a great time to take a look at what your state is doing on coal ash. It’s probably news. Here’s why and how.

The Trump administration had just loosened the coal ash rules on July 17 (may require subscription), ceding to the states vast leeway on how to regulate its threats to environmental health.

But then on August 21 the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit threw out parts of the coal ash regs, pausing the Trump administration’s efforts to weaken them, and ruling that even the Obama administration’s previous rule was not stringent enough.

The litigation is hardly over. How this is settled could affect the health of people in your area.

Combustion byproduct at center of years-long battle

Coal ash is really several byproducts of coal combustion in electric utility power plants, so that it contains quite a few toxic heavy metals that contaminate ground and surface water. Among them: boron, cobalt, lithium, copper, nickel, zinc, lead, chromium, manganese, mercury, cadmium and arsenic.

Aerial photograph of a Kingston, Tenn. coal fly ash slurry spill in 2008 that made national news and led to a compromise rule governing the leaching of toxic metals into water supplies. Photo: Tennessee Valley Authority, Wikimedia Commons. Click to enlarge.

Historically, coal ash has been stored in ponds or pits that were unlined and poorly contained. It has been piling up for decades and has not been managed very well.

As a result, coal ash has been the center of an epic battle for years between environmentalists and local communities on the one hand, and lobbyists for coal-burning electric utilities on the other.

The issue broke into the national news cycle in December 2008, when a dam containing a huge amount of coal ash slurry failed at the Kingston Fossil Plant in Tennessee.

Incoming President Barack Obama vowed to address the problem, fighting industry resistance for most of his two terms. In the end, the biggest issue wasn’t dam safety, but the widespread uncontrolled leaching of toxic metals into people’s water.

This battle resulted in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency signing a weakened compromise rule (may require subscription) in December 2014 (which didn’t take effect until 2015). Info on the 2015 rule is here.

But that did not end the matter. As President Donald Trump swept into office, his coal-fired sponsors like Robert Murray urged EPA to roll back the weakened Obama rule even further.

On July 17, 2018, EPA finalized a rule doing just that under new Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler. Environmentalists worried even more about harm to people’s health.

Issue already news in numerous states

One of the most important things for an environmental reporter to know about the proposed Trump-Pruitt-Wheeler coal ash rule is that it would give states pretty much a free hand to do whatever they want — and not do what they don’t want. Some say even the Obama rule gave states too long a leash.

So will the coal ash rule be news in the states? It already is.

For example, coal ash rules came up on June 18 in former EPA Administrator Pruitt’s home state of Oklahoma, when EPA shifted regulatory authority on coal ash to a state for the first time. The next state in line to get this authority may be Georgia.

Those delegations were authorized under the old rule; under any new rule, the pace will likely quicken.


Without monitoring information you, and

the community you write for,

are blindfolded on whatever health threat

your local coal ash may present.


Coal ash will also be news in the states because of all the lawsuits, which may only be complicated by the changing regulatory environment.

In one suit in Illinois, environmentalists are suing owners of a shuttered (but leaking) power plant under the Clean Water Act. A town in Alabama complained (unsuccessfully) that landfilling of coal ash there represented environmental racism. And in another case in Virginia, the Sierra Club is suing Dominion Energy. And there are more.

Questions to ask; resources to track

As you look into the coal ash situation in your own area, there are a few questions to start with.

One issue is monitoring: What monitoring of ground and surface water contamination has been done near the plant in question? The new EPA rule actually lets states require less monitoring. Without monitoring information you, and the community you write for, are blindfolded on whatever health threat your local coal ash may present.  

Another issue is cleanup and closure deadlines. If those deadlines have already been stretched for your plant, remember that the new rule allows further extensions.

One excellent source of information on coal ash, from an environmental health viewpoint, is the Environmental Integrity Project, which has focused on the issue for years. It has published a great list of contacts that includes Lisa Evans of Earthjustice, one of the most useful sources.

For the industry point of view, try the American Coal Ash Association.

Also, there are useful maps of coal ash sites nationwide here, here, here and here.

In addition, you can find much of SEJ’s published content on coal ash here. See especially this 2016 TipSheet and this earlier story.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 3, No. 32. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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