SACE | Southern Alliance for Clean Energy

EPA’s Proposed Coal Ash Rules


The generation of electricity using coal-fired power plants is devastating to the environment and human health. People are all too familiar with the documented damages and deaths related to coal mining and the illnesses, pollution and climactic impacts resulting from burning coal. However, it was not until December of 2008–when an impoundment at the TVA’s Kingston coal plant ruptured–that the public learned in graphic detail the great risks of coal ash.

Most of our region's coal ash storage facilities are aging, unlined and located near the waterways we all depend on. At Tennessee's Johnsonville Power Station, ash is pumped to an "island" in the Tennessee River.

Most of our region’s coal ash storage facilities are aging, unlined and located near the waterways we all depend on. At Tennessee’s Johnsonville Power Station, ash is pumped to an “island” in the Tennessee River.

Coal ash, also known as coal combustion residuals (CCR) or coal combustion waste (CCW) is the byproduct of coal burning. When coal is burned to create the steam that powers turbines, a mess of ash is left behind, with concentrated amounts of many toxic chemicals including lead, arsenic, mercury, cadmium and chromium. Coal ash has always been a toxic mess, but advances in technology that help keep chemicals out of the air lead to coal ash with greater concentrations of these same toxic ingredients.

With this increasing danger in mind, EPA has spent over a decade setting the groundwork for the comprehensive regulation of CCRs. With the Kingston disaster as an impetus, EPA drafted proposed rules to handle the two aspects of coal ash pollution: Disposal and handling of coal ash, and coal plant water pollution. The EPA has proposed rules to address both these areas of concern.



On September 20, 2013, the public comment period ended for long-overdue coal plant water pollution standards, also known as Effluent Limitation Guidelines or ELG’s, under the federal Clean Water Act.

These standards have the potential to limit the amount of toxic metals and other chemicals that can be dumped in our water. Because this rule is being “harmonized” with a coal ash disposal rule, it will likely play an important role in determining the level of protection in a solid waste rule.

Coal ash impoundments at the Colbert Power station leak toxic heavy metals to the Tennessee River from dozens of seeps like this one. Source: Tennessee Riverkeeper

Coal ash impoundments at the Colbert Power station leak toxic heavy metals to the Tennessee River from dozens of seeps like this one. Source: Tennessee Riverkeeper

Coal plants are the number once source of toxic water pollution in the U.S., however 4 out of 5 coal plants in the U.S. have no limits on the amount of toxics they are allowed to dump into our water. Current standards governing water pollution from power plants have not been updated in over 30 years. The EPA has repeatedly acknowledged that guidelines have not kept pace with developments in the industry and the current standards fail to address the worst pollutants that are dumped into our water.

Click here for a fact sheet to learn more about coal plant water pollution and proposed coal plant water pollution standards.

Click here to see how these how coal plant water pollution standards will address the problem.

Even if the EPA adopts the most protective coal plant water pollution standards, toxic coal ash pollution will still threaten communities and waterways. These standards only deal with wastewater discharges, or “end of pipe” pollution. They don’t address coal ash impoundments, many of which are old, unlined, failing, and leaking toxic pollution into ground water and surface water. This part of the problem must be addressed through coal ash disposal regulations (see below). In short, both rules are needed to comprehensively regulate toxic coal ash waste.



On October 3, 2013 a federal judge ordered EPA to move forward with setting federal coal ash rules. The order of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia offered little details about the timing or substance of the EPA’s rulemaking but said it will issue a Memorandum Opinion within the next 30 days with more specifics. For now, the decision marks the first step towards federally enforceable safeguards, monitoring, and protections against coal ash.

On June 21, 2010 EPA released a draft of its coal ash proposal. As expected, EPA was pressured by powerful interests and did not present the strong regulation that it preferred. Rather EPA co-proposed two rules both of which use the federal statute known as the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) but only one of which will protect people and the environment from the dangers of coal ash.

The first proposal, the one that EPA initially drafted, uses Subtitle C of RCRA. This option would treat coal ash as a special hazardous waste and anybody who generates, transports, treats, stores or disposes of coal ash would be required to get a federally enforceable permit. This permit would encompass strict standards for the entire life-cycle of coal ash, including requirements for lining landfills and ash ponds, water quality monitoring, financial assurances in case of bankruptcy, corrective action plans, leachate collection systems, dust controls, emergency response plans and, importantly, structural stability and dam safety requirements. Eventually all of the dangerous surface ponds like the one at Kingston will be shut down and ash will be stored in safer dry landfills. Under this Subtitle C option, the EPA would have authority to inspect sites for compliance and enforce against violations.

Under the industry and TVA’s preferred option, toxic coal ash would be regulated pursuant to RCRA Subtitle D, which is otherwise used for overseeing the dumping of household garbage. The proposal suggests a number of standards for safe storage of coal ash. However, the Subtitle D option regulates only storage, not generation, transportation or treatment. Moreover, this option would not have enforceable rules, only federal suggestions. There would be no authority for inspections and the EPA could not make coal plant owners follow the new standards.

The co-proposed rule was open for public comment throughout the summer and fall of 2010. EPA held several public hearings including one in Charlotte, NC and one in Knoxville, TN. Hundreds of participants turned out to speak at each hearing and the majority spoke in favor of strong, comprehensive regulations under Subtitle C. Now it is time to wait for EPA’s final action. A final decision on the coal ash rule is expected by the end of 2011 or early 2012.

Because protecting human health and the environment is our goal, SACE supports regulating toxic coal ash as a hazardous waste and updating the EPA Coal Water Pollution Standards to protect waters surrounding coal plants from toxic runoff.

To learn more about coal combustion waste, the rulemaking process and SACE’s activities, please visit these useful links on our website: