Congress Must Prevent Utilities From Skirting Coal Ash Landfill Requirements

Guest Blog | April 28, 2016 | Coal, Energy Policy
The Southeast is home to 40% of the nation’s coal ash impoundments, according to the EPA.

U.S. Representative Hank Johnson (D) of Georgia recently introduced a bill, H.R. 4827, that would close a dangerous loophole in a federal coal ash rule by extending it to cover household garbage landfills that receive coal ash. The southeast has more coal ash per capita than any other region of the country, so we hope Rep. Johnson’s southern colleagues will co-sponsor and publicly support this bill.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) created the federal coal ash rule to limit the health threats of coal ash pollution, but the rule doesn’t apply to household garbage landfills, or “Municipal Solid Waste” (MSW) landfills in official terms. Utilities are already trying to use this loophole to dump millions of tons of toxic ash in landfills that aren’t designed for it. Rep. Johnson’s bill would ensure communities near household waste landfills get the same protections as people who near coal ash disposal sites covered under EPA’s coal ash rule, including groundwater monitoring and cleanup requirements.

Will you send a letter to your members of congress asking them to support this important bill?

The Landfill Loophole

Rep. Johnson’s bill, the Coal Ash Landfill Safety Act (CALSA; H.R. 4827) eliminates the exemption of MSW landfills from EPA’s coal ash rule. CALSA ensures that at MSW landfills, coal ash isn’t stored within five feet of groundwater, groundwater monitoring programs are in place, fugitive dust is controlled, and that communities have critical information on spills and groundwater monitoring data, just like at other coal ash dumps. The bill is a response to utilities looking to existing MSW landfills as they explore options for dealing with decades of coal ash waste.

While utilities like Georgia Power and Duke Energy may still be allowed to leave millions of tons of ash in unlined, leaking pits, they will also excavate some of it to dry storage in landfills. Done properly, landfills are generally a safer storage solution because they keep ash away from water, which leaches and spreads its contaminants.

EPA’s coal ash rule sets requirements for many landfills that store coal ash in order to safeguard nearby residents. If congress fails to take action and close the loophole for MSW landfills, it’s possible that millions of tons of coal ash could be stored in these dumps, threatening the health and safety of people living nearby.

Growing Concerns Over Coal Ash Stored in Southeastern Landfills

The best way to reduce the threat of coal ash is to stop burning coal, but in the meantime the ash that already exists needs to be properly stored and handled. Coal ash contains dangerous toxic substances like arsenic, lead, and mercury, and makes for a lousy neighbor. It’s no surprise that people living near landfills are concerned that coal ash might be headed their way. In fact, communities with landfills in Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina are already taking action.

Georgia: Residents of Jessup, Georgia have been up in arms since learning that Republic Services plans to accept coal ash into its Wayne County landfill. Republic plans to expand the Broadhurst landfill over a wetland and build a rail yard to accept coal ash, among other wastes. The community is concerned that coal ash waste could leach into their groundwater and endanger their health. They are calling on the Army Corps of Engineers to deny a necessary permit.

Underscoring community concerns, a recent investigative report by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution revealed that coal ash already leaked from now-closed coal ash facilities at the Broadhurst landfill, though the leak was not reported to residents at the time. In response to the revelation, the Georgia General Assembly passed a bill to ensure that Georgians are notified of toxic leaks at landfills. Governor Nathan Deal signed the bill into law on Tuesday. The General Assembly also created a committee to study coal ash disposal issues more broadly.

South Carolina: Controversy erupted in Pickens County, South Carolina when an out-of-state landfill company attempted to develop a landfill that would accept coal ash. MRR Southern, based in Raleigh, North Carolina, had its county permit to build revoked after public outcry elevated the issue to the County Commission. The company is currently suing the county. Community outrage sparked South Carolina’s General Assembly to pass a bill, recently signed into law by Governor Nikki Haley, that prevents out-of-state coal ash from being dumped in some Class 2 landfills (which includes the landfill in Pickens County). Instead, out-of-state ash must be dumped in lined, Class 3 landfills with more protective standards.

Congress Must Close the Loophole!

As utilities respond to EPA’s coal ash rule and begin looking for permanent storage options for their coal ash, it’s critical that we ensure they aren’t allowed to dump ash in landfills that weren’t designed to handle the waste and manage its risks. Southeasterners are already struggling with the impacts of toxic ash, especially in communities of color like Uniontown. Their voices and stories should be elevated, not silenced.

Rep. Johnson’s leadership should be applauded as he and other members of Congress work to close this dangerous loophole in EPA’s coal ash rule. However, Congress is simultaneously considering S.2446, a bill that would undermine EPA’s rule and EPA’s authority to regulate coal ash. We need congress to act with urgency to ensure that every community has adequate protection from coal ash waste, instead of eliminating protection on behalf of utilities. You can help make it happen. Send a letter to your members of congress asking them to support this important bill!

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