The Environmental Protection Agency proposed a rule revision Thursday giving state agencies greater authority over one of the largest sources of industrial waste in the country — coal ash.
Utility groups say they support opening up the rule to changes that would provide certainty for the industry. Environmental groups are concerned that the proposed changes will remove the floor on coal ash standards. State regulators in Wyoming argue that they can oversee their own industries, following federal standards and decrease the current overlap of state and federal rules.
States like Wyoming are already building programs to deal with the waste, in accordance with a Congressional decision in 2016 to allow state governance over coal ash according to federal rules.
The proposal announced Thursday would revise the national standards states must adhere to with more than a dozen proposed changes. Issues like groundwater protection monitoring, for example, may be more flexible from one plant to another, according to the Environmental Protection Agency’s press release.
There are different types of coal ash, from the sludge that collects in some types of boilers to the dusty powder left after incinerating coal. The ash can contain contaminants like mercury and arsenic, which pose a risk to groundwater.
The Environmental Protection Agency’s 2015 standards came about after a number of large incidents on the east coast, where coal ash storage failed and contaminated local waterways. The rules set a federal framework for construction and maintenance of coal ash disposal ponds and landfills. It requires companies to post the details of their coal ash disposal process online for the public.
The following year Congress passed legislation allowing states to develop coal ash programs as long as they were as strict as the Environmental Protection Agency’s new standards.
Wyoming had a state program regulating coal ash storage and disposal before the Environmental Protection Agency’s 2015-rule, said Luke Esch, administrator of the Department of Environmental Quality’s Solid and Hazardous Waste Division. The state began rewriting its coal ash program in 2016 to prepare for primacy.
How the Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed changes will effect the development of Wyoming rules is unclear at this point, he said.
Companies are currently following both federal and state guidelines, he said.
“Our regulations are still valid,” he said. “We are making sure those facilities are protected in this interim before we get a program in place.”
Wyoming has 23 coal-fired power stations currently operating in nine locations across the state. Rocky Mountain Power’s Dave Johnston Power Plant east of Casper held about 17.5 million tons of coal ash as of 2016, according to company records. The ash is stored about 1 mile north of the plant, which sits on the North Platte River.
Dave Johnston’s landfill is inspected weekly and annually, said Spencer Hall, a spokesman for Rocky Mountain Power.
“The state and federal regulations for coal ash have developed over time, so we’re constantly monitoring our facilities and taking action to prevent environmental impact,” Hall said.
Rocky Mountain Power works closely with Wyoming’s Department of Environmental Quality, and provides reports on coal ash disposal to the Environmental Protection Agency, he said.
The Salt Lake City-based utility has not lobbied directly for or against the Environmental Protection Agency’s coal ash regulations, but is part of consortium that lobbies on behalf of utilities, Utility Solid Waste Activities Group, part of the Edison Electric Institute.
The group supports the EPA’s recent proposal, arguing that it would give utilities and states more stability.
“Incorporating these federal standards will ensure there is a regulatory floor — that they are all taking the same approach to groundwater monitoring, facility design and those sorts of standards but applying them on a state-specific, site-specific basis,” said James Roewer, the Utility Solid Waste Activities Group executive director.
Right now the standards are self-regulated by industry, and that can cause problems when someone doesn’t think the utility is following the rules.
Interpretation of the standards can only be arbitrated in district court, when either a state or private citizen sues the power company, Roewer said. When a state has multiple district courts, like Wyoming, judges could feasibly come to separate decisions interpreting the standards within the same state, he said.
“That patchwork doesn’t make sense,” he said.
The EPA’s proposed changes could save utility companies between $31 million and $100 million per year, according to the agency.
Environmental groups see the proposal as a potential death knell for rules to protect health and the environment, like lining coal ash pits to keep seepage from polluting waterways.
Connie Wilbert, director of the Sierra Club’s Wyoming chapter, said she’s skeptical of Wyoming’s ability to regulate coal ash without a strong federal standard.
“We aren’t seeing the state take a strong position on any number of issues related to fossil fuels in general,” she said. “This proposed revision introduces a level of flexibility that we’re pretty uncomfortable with.”
What the Environmental Protection Agency has revealed is a weakening of baseline requirements, she said.
“We think that there should be an umbrella standard below which you cannot go,” she said. “Sometimes those case-by-case standards bypass that.”