The Environmental Protection Agency has received its marching orders to move forward with a regulation on coal ash. Environmental groups cheered an Oct. 29 memorandum from a federal judge directing EPA to set a date within 60 days to finalize the regulation.

But U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton in Washington, D.C., noted in his memothat just because EPA finally releases a regulation, it does not guarantee that it will be to the liking of environmental and public health groups, which have long advocated that coal ash should be designated as a hazardous material and therefore regulated by the EPA, not by the states.

That distinction becomes important, environmental groups say, because they say that states have not done enough to ensure that coal ash is safely and properly disposed of.

According to Earthjustice, one of the groups pushing for federal regulation and a hazardous designation, coal ash has contaminated more than 200 lakes, streams and aquifers across the country, and hundreds of additional unlined and unmonitored coal ash dumpsites exist.

“These are an accident waiting to happen,” says Donna Marie Lisenby, coal campaign coordinator for Waterkeeper Alliance.

Lisenby spoke to reporters during a tour last month of the site of the most significant disaster to date: the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) powerplant coal ash impoundment in Kingston, Tenn. An dike failure in 2008 caused more 5.4 million cubic yards of coal ash to spill into the Emory River and adjacent area, destroying 300 acres as well as people’s homes and quality of life in the process. According to local residents, the community was devastated by the disaster.

TVA has worked hard to rectify the situation and has made significant progress in cleaning up the site. According to Scott Brooks, TVA spokesman, all of the coal ash has been remediated or put back in place. The entire project is expected to wrap up in 2015, he says.

blog post photo
The spilled ash that did not enter the river is being stored on-site in the dredge cell, which is being capped and closed. That process includes the installation of a flexible membrane liner, covered with a geocomposite drainage layer, then capped with two feet of soil cover. Photo by Pam Hunter for ENR

ENRwroteabout the cleanup plan in December 2009

But the potential for similar accidents at other sites exists, and is really only a matter of time, Lisenby says. “This place haunts me,” Lisenby says, “because it didn’t have to be.”

On the other side of the issue are industry groups, who note that coal ash has long been re-used as a “green” component in concrete and other building materials.

Brian Deery, senior director of the Associated General Contractors of America’s highway and transportation division, says that by designating coal ash as hazardous, contractors would be hesitant to use it in construction materials.

This, ironically, could lead to more of a problem at impoundment sites because there would be more, not less, coal byproduct to dispose of. He adds that re-using the coal ash in construction materials safely encapsulates the coal byproduct and reduces carbon emissions.

AGC’s Director of Green Construction, Melinda Tomaino, says the fact that the EPA proposal, which was first circulated in 2010, has been delayed so long could signal the agency’s reluctance to step in and supersede state regulations.

Still, environmental groups are optimistic that the EPA will come out with a strong regulation. In an Oct. 29 emailed statement, the groups said, “Federal protection is long overdue.”