EPA proposal could bring more scrutiny to coal ash ponds, landfills in Kentucky

Published 11:22 am Wednesday, July 19, 2023


Kentucky Lantern

More ponds, landfills and impoundments in Kentucky containing the toxic byproducts of burning coal for electricity could come under federal oversight for water monitoring and cleanup under a proposal by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

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The EPA is seeking comment on the proposal from stakeholders and the public in an online hearing Wednesday and is accepting public comments through Monday, July 17.

Federal officials say the proposal, first announced in May, could hold accountable power producers that have older or “legacy” coal ash impoundments near power plants to ensure monitoring and cleanup of those sites.

An industry group representing power producers opposes the proposal, saying it’s part of an “onslaught” of new regulations, while Kentucky’s largest utility has panned it as “unnecessary and costly.”

Coal ash is created by burning coal and contains a slew of contaminants such as arsenic, cadmium and mercury that can potentially pollute groundwater, drinking water and the air if not properly managed. These coal ash landfills and ponds are often located near power plants where the coal was burned.

The EPA first created rules in 2015 regulating coal ash impoundments following an environmental disaster in Kingston, Tennessee, when a dike for a coal ash pond collapsed, flooding embankments and eventually a nearby river. Workers who cleaned up the coal ash without protection fell sick, with more than 50 dying.

The new federal proposal would incorporate “legacy” coal ash sites not covered by the 2015 rule that are more likely to be unmonitored and “unlined,” meaning there’s no protective layer to prevent the leakage of coal ash into groundwater.

Lane Boldman, the executive director for the environmental advocacy group Kentucky Conservation Committee, said water often gets mixed into coal ash ponds, allowing toxins to  more easily seep into the ground if the ponds are unlined.

“The longer that we’ve accumulated coal ash, the more the hazards have become more apparent,” Boldman said. “These structures that were put in place to contain the waste just weren’t sufficient.”

An analysis of federal documents and data by the environmental legal group Earthjustice shows Kentucky has more than two dozen federally unregulated coal ash landfills and ponds throughout the state.

While the proposal would begin federal regulation of hundreds more coal ash sites, an Earthjustice spokesperson said some sites would still be exempt, including “inactive” coal ash ponds at former coal-fired power plants.

Various “probable” owners of the sites, according to Earthjustice, are major utilities, including Louisville Gas and Electric and Kentucky Utilities, East Kentucky Power Cooperative and the Tennessee Valley Authority.

A spokesperson for LG&E and KU, the state’s largest utility, disputed the number of federally unregulated coal ash sites that Earthjustice asserts it owns.

The utility spokesperson also said the EPA proposal would “undercut cooperation between states and the federal government” and that it already works with state environmental protection officials to ensure drinking water is protected.

“The rule would place EPA in the position of second-guessing past decisions by the states on remedial action necessary to protect public health and the environment at these sites,” said Daniel Lowry, an LG&E and KU spokesperson. “There is no evidence to suggest that past regulatory determinations by the states have been inadequate or that these sites pose a significant risk that warrants imposition of the federal regulatory program.”

The spokesperson said the utility was already in the process of closing its coal ash landfills and ponds according to state regulations, and the new EPA proposal would require “unnecessary and costly” reopening, excavating and “additional construction practices” at the sites.

Those interested in attending Wednesday’s online hearing on the rule can register through an online portal. Those interested in submitting a comment on the proposal can do so through a separate online portal and clicking the blue “comment” tab.