The Environmental Protection Agency on May 4 unveiled a draft rule to regulate for the first time coal ash under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). Under the proposal, coal plants would be required to retrofit existing impoundments, which typically store the ash in liquid form, with composite liners. The proposal also would provide strong incentives for utilities to eventually close the surface impoundments and shift to dry storage in landfills, EPA says.

The potential regulation of coal ash has been highly anticipated by environmental groups, who say that contaminants in coal ash—such as mercury cadmium and arsenic—can leach into groundwater.  But manufacturers of concrete contend that fly ash has been used safely in concrete for years and has environmental benefits of its own when recycled.

The proposal outlines two approaches to coal ash management to ensure that accidents like the one in Kingston, Tenn., in 2008, don’t happen again.

Groups such as Earthjustice and the Natural Resource Defense Council were swift to praise EPA’s decision to move forward with a proposed rule.

EPA says it will leave in place an exemption for recycling and other “beneficial uses” of coal ash. “EPA supports the legitimate beneficial use of coal combustion residuals,” says Mathy Stanislaus, assistant administrator for EPA’s Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response.”

Andy O’Hare, vice president of regulatory affairs of the Portland Cement Association, says that EPA’s proposal “is important for essential products like concrete that benefit from the re-use of coal-ash.  The nation’s infrastructure relies on durable concrete for dams, runways, highways, bridges, levees, pipelines, and schools. Fly ash makes some