Colstrip Steam Electric Station, a coal burning power plant in Colstrip, Montana. (AP/Matthew Brown)

Earth wins a round in EPA court battle

Power companies may be forced to clean up coal-ash rumps


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Sarah Okeson
September 14, 2018 10:30AM (UTC)
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Power companies may have to clean up more than 100 abandoned coal ash dumps because of a recent court decision such as the one that is leaking purple and orange waste into Illinois’ only national scenic river, even as the EPA under Trump tries to further weaken coal ash regulations.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ordered the EPA to rewrite regulations to include coal ash dumps at inactive power plants. The court called the EPA’s decision to exempt the dumps from regulation “arbitrary and capricious.”

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“Simply hoping that somehow there will be last-minute warnings about imminent dangers at sites that are not monitored, or relying on cleaning up the spills after great damage is done and the harm inflicted does not sensibly address those dangers,” the judges wrote.

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="600"]dynegyvermilion-DCReport Three coal-ash ponds along the Middle Fork of the Vermilion River in Illinois. (prairierivers.org)[/caption]

In Illinois, toxic goo from unlined coal ash pits containing arsenic and lead is seeping into the Middle Fork of the Vermilion River. The coal ash, from a plant operated by Illinois Power that closed in 2011, is exempt from federal regulation under the coal ash rule enacted in 2015 under former President Barack Obama.

The site in east-central Illinois is owned by Vistra Energy which bought the former owner, Dynegy Inc. The Illinois EPA recently cited Vistra.

Jenny Cassel, a lawyer with Earthjustice, said: “Dynegy left a toxic mess on the banks of one of Illinois’ most beautiful rivers and has done nothing to stop the dangerous, illegal pollution from fouling waters enjoyed by countless families who kayak, tube, canoe and even swim in the river.”

Coal-fired power plants in the United States burned more than 800 million tons of coal just in 2012. That resulted in about 110 million tons of coal ash which contains arsenic, lead and mercury.

Under Trump, the EPA worked to weaken the Obama coal ash rule. In July, the EPA amended the rule to allow states and the EPA to suspend groundwater monitoring requirements at coal ash sites if it’s determined there’s no potential for pollutants to move into some aquifers. The rule was the first signed by Andrew Wheeler, the new acting head of the agency who was a coal industry lobbyist before joining the Trump administration.

Environmental groups said the court decision “casts serious doubt on the legality of those revisions.” The judges who heard the case were Patricia Millett and Cornelia Pillard, both Obama appointees, and Karen LeCraft Henderson, a George H.W. Bush appointee.

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The Utility Solid Waste Activities Group sued the EPA over the Obama era rule, saying it was causing “adverse impacts on coal-fired generation” because of “the excessive costs of compliance.”

Environmental groups, including the Environmental Integrity Project and the Sierra Club, argued that the Obama rule improperly exempted the abandoned coal ash dumps at shuttered plants from regulation. They also said some coal ash dumps were in danger of leaking because they weren’t lined or were only protected against leaking by compacted soil, which can develop leaks.

The judges also threw out parts of the Obama rule which allowed unlined coal ash dumps to continue to operate and dumps lined only with compacted soil.


Sarah Okeson

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