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Who Will Pay to Clean Up US Coal Ash Pollution?

Environmental Protection Agency’s Proposal Risks Serious Harm

Coal ash swirls on the surface of the Dan River following one of the worst coal-ash spills in US history into the river in Danville, Virginia, February 5, 2014. © 2014 AP Photo/Gerry Broome, File

A proposed new rule by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) could mean that coal ash pollution – a byproduct of burning coal for electricity – won’t be properly cleaned up and that even if it is, the public will foot the bill.

The EPA is required to assess whether industries need to set aside money for potential pollution cleanup. It is now proposing not to impose financial requirements on the electrical power industry, despite the enormous cost of cleaning up decades of coal ash pollution.

Human Rights Watch submitted a comment today opposing the agency’s proposal.

Coal ash, which contains a slew of toxic metals such as arsenic and lead, is one of the largest industrial waste streams in the United States. Prior to an EPA regulation in 2015, most US states let utilities dispose of coal ash in unlined pits that allow these metals to leach into groundwater. The pollution poses a significant health risk for the 115 million US citizens who rely on groundwater sources for drinking.

The extent of coal ash contamination was first revealed in March 2018, when a new federal regulation required power plants to test groundwater near coal ash ponds and publish the results. According to the advocacy group EarthJustice, 91 percent of the units reporting data had found groundwater contamination, many at levels far exceeding federal safety standards.

US law requires the EPA to assess the chance of an industry’s cleanup costs being passed onto the public, and if this seems likely, to require companies to set aside cleanup funds. But the agency’s assessment of the electric industry significantly underestimated the financial risks.

First, it only looked at cases where pollution was generated after 2015, when coal ash sites became regulated. For example, North Carolina ordered Duke Energy to clean up all its coal ash pollution in the state after 39,000 tons of toxic waste from coal ash contaminated the Dan River in 2014. The company estimates this will cost US$10 billion, and is now seeking to pass some of the cost on to consumers by hiking electricity prices.

Second, it didn’t adequately consider the financial precariousness of the coal-powered industry, as competition from natural gas has led dozens of these plants to recently shut down, with many more slated for closure.

If utilities that rely on coal aren’t forced to set aside funds, there are serious concerns they won’t have the resources to pay clean-up costs. The public will then be on the hook for the bill, or face continued health risks from the pollution.

Either way, the public loses.

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