The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is continuing its review of regulations that may burden domestic energy-resource companies, this time with an eye toward coal ash disposal. While utilities are looking for relief, environmentalists see the agency’s actions as putting special interests ahead of clean water.

EPA on June 6 proposed postponing compliance dates for utilities to reduce toxic materials from wastewater discharges at coal-fired plants, including from coal-ash impoundments, while the agency reconsiders the 2015 effluent limitation guidelines (ELG) requiring the use of best-available technology for waste streams.

When it released the ELG, EPA estimated an annual compliance cost of $480 million for the 12% of steam-generating plants that would need to comply. A group of environmentalists has filed suit, seeking to block EPA’s reconsideration.

In the meantime, the Utility Solid Waste Activities Group has asked EPA to reconsider portions of the separate but related Coal Combustion Residuals Rule, which governs disposal of coal ash, including suspending an upcoming October deadline to align the mandate with the ELG compliance dates.

Jigsaw puzzle

The ELG and the coal-ash rule are tied together, says Andy Byers, associate vice president and environmental director of Black & Veatch’s energy business. “Since the EPA saw fit to suspend the ELG rule until the agency completes its reconsideration and resolves the associated litigation, It only makes sense to suspend them both,” he says.

Utilities want decisions under both rules to be coordinated. To add to the confusion, states have the authority to apply limits beyond the minimums set by both the effluent limit guidelines (ELG) and coal-ash rules. “It’s a little bit of a jigsaw puzzle to figure out,” says Byers.

Under the coal-ash rule, utilities with surface impoundments must install by October groundwater-monitoring wells to watch for leaks or opt to close them.

The utility group says closing the impoundments adds an onerous cost on coal-fired generation. Byers noted that the original rule’s provision for enforcement through citizen lawsuits adds an additional risk of costly litigation from environmental interest groups targeting coal-fired power plants.

There are more than 1.4 billion tons of coal slurry in pits that pose a significant threat, says EPA. It found that 318 of the 735 U.S. impoundments are in less than satisfactory condition. Some 30% to 50% of all toxic pollutants in U.S. waterways come from coal-ash storage, says Frank Holleman of the Southern Environmental Law Center. “By coming to the defense of coal ash, it reflects that, rather than ‘draining the swamp,’ EPA has become the swamp,” Holleman says.

No Benefit in Rule Change

Some utilities wouldn’t benefit if the rule is changed. Two proactive South Carolina utilities, Santee Cooper and South Carolina Electric & Gas, have agreed to recycle their coal ash—now stored in unlined pits—or remove it to dry, lined storage, away from water sources.

Santee Cooper has recycled more than 1.6-million tons of ash from impoundments since 2014, says Mollie Gore, a spokeswoman.

Still, the coal-ash rule’s schedule for impoundment closure may not leave the utility enough time to complete excavation for recycling, Gore says. About half of all coal ash is recycled, she notes.

Duke Energy has plans to cap or excavate 52 of its coal-ash basins in North Carolina, South Carolina, Kentucky and Indiana at an estimated cost of $6.2 billion. Duke is building three recycling units to process the coal ash, as required by the state.

The Southern Environmental Law Center on May 31 said it would challenge Duke’s plan to cap in place the unlined coal pond at the Roxboro plant in North Carolina, claiming it is leaking. Duke disputes the claim and notes EPA rules allow both excavation and capping in place as options to close coal-ash ponds.

Duke Energy was fined $6 million last year, after a 2014 break at the Dan River Steam Station impoundment spilled 30,000 tons of coal ash into the river.

The break followed the largest spill in the U.S., in 2008, when an impoundment at TVA’s Kingston, Tenn., plant failed and dumped 5.4 million cu yd of coal waste over 300 acres and into the Clinch River.