EPA Denies Requests From Plants in 3 Midwest States to Extend Coal Ash Operations

Coal-burning power plants in three midwest states were ordered to close their coal ash ponds earlier than expected after the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) denied requests to extend their permits.

Plants in Indiana, Iowa and Ohio are forced to shut down their coal ash ponds months if not years ahead of schedule after the EPA denied their extension requests because of inadequate monitoring of groundwater, clean up and other issues.

Coal ash is what's left behind after coal is burned to create energy. It's composed of a toxic mixture of mercury, arsenic and other heavy metals. On average coal plants in the U.S. generate around 100 million tons of ash and other waste every year.

Coal ash ponds have been used by power plants for decades but they can cause respiratory problems in people who leave nearby, pollute water and poison wildlife.

"I've seen firsthand how coal ash contamination can hurt people and communities,'' said EPA Administrator Michael Regan.

The EPA is determined to hold industrial facilities accountable for their actions and ensure ash ponds meet the safety and environmental standards, said Regan.

"The EPA has sent a clear message that (power plant operators) cannot leave coal ash sitting in primitive, polluting ponds across the country,'' said environmental lawyer Frank Holleman.

The EPA's announcement will now affect other states who are storing their coal ash in problematic ways by using unlined pits that are leaking or stored next to waterways.

EPA Closes Coal Ash Ponds
In the first first major action to address toxic wastewater from coal-burning power plants, the Environmental Protection Agency is denying requests by three Midwest power plants to extend operations of leaking or otherwise dangerous coal ash storage ponds. In this May 1, 2018, file photo, the Richmond, Virginia, city skyline is seen in the horizon behind the coal ash ponds along the James River near Dominion Energy's Chesterfield Power Station in Chester, Virginia. Steve Helber/AP Photo

The EPA is taking its first major action to address toxic wastewater from coal-burning power plants, ordering utilities to stop dumping waste into unlined storage ponds and speed up plans to close leaking or otherwise dangerous coal ash sites.

Data released by utilities in 2018 on coal ash disposal ponds showed widespread evidence of contamination at coal plants from Virginia to Alaska.

The actions mark the first time the EPA has enforced a 2015 rule aimed at reducing groundwater pollution from coal-fired power plants that has contaminated streams, lakes and underground aquifers.

The Obama administration regulated the storage and disposal of toxic coal ash for the first time, including a requirement to close coal-ash dumping ponds that were unstable or contaminated groundwater. The Trump administration weakened the Obama-era rule in 2020, allowing utilities to use cheaper technologies and take longer to comply with pollution reduction guidelines that are less stringent than what the agency originally adopted.

"For too long, communities already disproportionately impacted by high levels of pollution have been burdened by improper coal ash disposal,'' said Regan a former North Carolina environmental regulator who negotiated with Duke Energy what state officials say was the largest cleanup agreement for toxic coal ash.

"Today's actions will help us protect communities and hold facilities accountable. We look forward to working with our state partners to reverse damage that has already occurred.''

In separate letters sent Tuesday, EPA denied requests for extensions of coal ash permits by the Clifty Creek power plant in Madison, Indiana; James M. Gavin plant in Cheshire, Ohio; and the Ottumwa plant in Ottumwa, Iowa.

The Greenidge Generation plant in Dresden, New York, was ruled ineligible for an extension. The former coal plant now uses natural gas.

The H.L. Spurlock plant in Maysville, Kentucky, will be required to fix groundwater monitoring as a condition for continued operation of its coal ash pond, the EPA said.

Lisa Evans, a senior attorney for the environmental group Earthjustice, said the enforcement action "sends a strong message to industry that (compliance with the EPA rule) is not a paperwork exercise. It requires them to clean up these toxic sites.''

Holleman said the enforcement action offers significant protections for clean water nationwide.

Utilities in Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee and other states that are still storing coal ash in problematic ways are among those affected by the decision, Holleman said.

Coal ash storage and disposal went largely unregulated until a 2008 spill at a Tennessee Valley Authority power plant in Kingston, Tennessee. A containment dike burst and flooding covered more than 300 acres (121 million hectares), dumped waste into two nearby rivers, destroyed homes and brought national attention to the issue.

In 2014, an estimated 39,000 tons of coal ash spewed into the Dan River after a drainage pipe running below a waste dump collapsed at a Duke Energy plant in Eden, North Carolina. The toxic sludge turned the river gray for more than 70 miles (112 kilometers).

The EPA on Tuesday reiterated its "consistently held position that surface impoundments or landfills cannot be closed with coal ash in contact with groundwater.'' Limiting contact between coal ash and groundwater after closure is critical to minimizing contaminants released into the environment and will help ensure communities near the sites have access to safe water for drinking and recreation, the EPA said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.