The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency plans to deny requests by three power facilities for extended deadlines to close unlined coal ash impoundments that are risks to groundwater, while offering only a provisional extension to another. The decision came as part of a larger agency push to strengthen regulation of coal combustion residuals disposal and facilities with unlined storage.

EPA estimates that there are 500 unlined ash storage pits across the country.

In its Jan. 11 announcement, EPA said the three extension requests to plants in Indiana, Ohio and Iowa were denied because of “several potential deficiencies with groundwater monitoring, cleanup and closure activities,” including lack of monitoring wells or unsuitable monitoring methods and inadequate evaluations of planned technology that could affect proper cleanup. 

The Obama administration in 2015 published more stringent requirements for coal ash disposal in landfills and surface impoundments, including lining certain types of ash ponds to prevent groundwater pollution, but in 2016 it allowed facilities with inactive impoundments to request extensions to comply.

In 2020, EPA under the Trump administration issued amendments that extended the extension.

“This is the most significant action EPA has taken to control coal ash pollution since its enactment of the 2015 rules,” says Frank Holleman, senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center, which has been involved in coal ash cleanup litigation for more than a decade. 

That action includes a reassertion, applying nationwide, that companies cannot store coal ash in unlined pits, which includes those lined with clay, because of the potential to mix with groundwater, a practice that some state agencies have allowed utilities to engage in, says Holleman. “That door has now been shut and will require utilities and state agencies to redo their plans for closure.”

EPA has said it will work to ensure state-level plans match, at minimum, the federal requirements. 

In addition, the agency says it will require companies to address any groundwater pollution beyond simply allowing pollutants to dilute over time. EPA will also more stringently oversee groundwater monitoring.

Some utilities and state agencies have already been well along on the path of removing coal ash from unlined pits, including utility Duke Energy, headquartered in North Carolina, Virginia-based Dominion, and all utilities with basins in South Carolina.

“So this is really now an industry standard,” says Holleman. 

But many unlined pits remain to be addressed across the country. Holleman cites the ash pond at Georgia Power’s decommissioned Hammond power plant site, among other unlined pits the company had planned to leave as such, as well as Tennessee Valley Authority sites across Tennessee. 

And while EPA determined extension requests for two Ameren-owned Missouri plants, Meramec Energy Center and Sioux Energy Center, were incomplete, the state Dept. of Natural Resources recently granted a permit to another of its sites, Labadie Energy Center, to release pollutants from two closed pits; EPA plans to create regulations for legacy impoundments. 

The plants being denied extensions are Clifty Creek Power Station in Madison, Ind.; Gavin Power Plant in Cheshire, Ohio; and Ottumwa Generating Station in Ottumwa, Iowa. The provisional extension to H.L. Spurlock Power Station in Maysville, Ky. hinges on EPA resolving issues with groundwater monitoring. 

These are the first of 52 completed requests for extension the agency is reviewing. Decisions for the remaining requests will occur over the next few months, EPA said. 

“We do not anticipate an impact on operations at the Ottumwa Generating Station,” says Melissa McCarville, spokeswoman for plant owner Alliant Energy. “Since our application submission to the EPA in November 2020, Alliant Energy has continued taking steps to complete the pond closures and mitigate environmental impacts,” she adds, saying that it is in compliance with the rule.