CCR – Disposal Regulation Revisions & Permitting Program by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency moves forward on two matters that proposed to revise its 2015 solid waste regulations for the disposal of coal combustion residuals.
On February 19, 2020, EPA announced what it said is the last of planned actions to implement the Congressional mandates, respond to petitions, address the results of litigation, and apply lessons learned to ensure smoother implementation of the regulations. In a rulemaking entitled “A Holistic Approach to Closure Part B,” EPA proposed the following revisions:
One of the proposed options for allowing the use of CCR for closure activities would allow coal ash to be moved between units at the same facility and consolidated at impoundments that are scheduled for closure. The second option would allow utilities to beneficially use coal ash in disposal unit closure activities.
Under the proposed rule, utilities would need to submit an alternative liner demonstration within 13 months of the final rule, with the possibility of extensions. The EPA noted there would likely be few basins able to meet the alternative liner requirements.
The proposal would also allow utilities to continue disposing ash into some ponds even after the pond has been scheduled for closure. Ponds will still be able to take in ash if the ash remains under a certain volume — and this includes ponds located in unstable areas, such as in a seismic zone or within five feet of a waterway.
EPA will seek comment on this proposal during a 45-day public comment period that will commence when it is published in the Federal Register. EPA will also hold a virtual public hearing on the proposal on April 9, 2020.
On February 20, 2020, EPA’s previously announced proposed rule to establish a Federal CCR Permitting Program was published in the Federal Register. The creation of a federal permitting program for coal ash disposal regulations was required by Congress in the 2016 Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation (WIIN) Act, which shifted enforcement authority for EPA’s disposal standards from citizen lawsuits to state environmental regulators. The federal permit program is intended for use in states that do not seek EPA approval for their own programs and for use in Indian Country.
The proposed federal program includes electronic permitting and sets requirements for permit applications, content and modification, as well as procedural requirements.
A federal appeals court ruled that the Obama administration’s rule to regulate coal ash does not go far enough in some areas. However, the court did not give environmentalists everything they were seeking. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit’s Aug. 21 decision in the case, Utility Solid Waste Activities Group v. EPA gave neither side all it wanted.
The decision comes as the Trump administration seeks to revise the EPA’s 2015 rule intended to regulate coal combustion residuals (CCR) from coal-fired power plants—one of the largest waste streams in the U.S. In July, the EPA issued a final rule granting more flexibility to industry and states. Both the Obama and Trump administrations have sought to give states the ability to create their own standards, but according to the D.C. Circuit, neither set of rules satisfied the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act–a 1976 law that allows the federal government to regulate solid waste generation, storage and disposal.
In its ruling, the court agreed that the EPA erred when it failed to mandate unlined CCR surface impoundments be closed, and when it exempted inactive impoundments from the regulation. The court also ruled that EPA should not have classified clay-lined impoundments as being lined.
The court also ruled against industry groups. For example, it determined that EPA does have the authority to regulate inactive impoundments and that it did provide enough public notice that it intended to apply aquifer-location criteria to existing impoundments.
The court also found that EPA decision to prohibit certain unencapsulated beneficial uses of CCR in amounts 12,400 tons or greater was arbitrary and remanded that decision to the EPA. The Agency had previously acknowledged the error in setting the 12,400 ton threshold (the threshold using the Agency’s methodology should have been about 75,000 tons).
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