EPA Denies Alabama’s Coal Ash Permit Program Application

WASHINGTON – Today, May 23, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is issuing its final decision to deny Alabama’s application to run a federally approved state permit program to manage coal ash landfills and impoundments. Following extensive engagement with Alabama and a robust review of its application, the agency is issuing a denial because the state’s permit program is significantly less protective of people and waterways than federal law requires.

“EPA is laser focused on protecting people from exposure to pollution, like coal ash, that can cause cancer risks and other serious health issues,” said EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan. “Our job is to work closely with states to make sure that every community is protected from contamination, and that’s especially true for those that have been overburdened by pollution for too long. EPA stands ready to continue working with Alabama so that they can submit an approvable application and implement a program that is as protective of public health as the federal standards.”

Federal law provides protective requirements for public health and the environment at coal ash units (i.e., landfills and surface impoundments) across the country. EPA can approve a state to implement a federally authorized coal ash permit program only if the state provides an equivalent or greater level of protection as federal law. This creates a level playing field for industry and strong, minimum protections for communities, including communities already overburdened by pollution.

EPA is denying the Alabama application to implement a coal ash permit program because state permitting decisions do not meet this standard for approval under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). Under this law, each coal ash unit in the state must achieve compliance with either federal law or state criteria that EPA has determined are at least as protective as the federal criteria. EPA reviewed Alabama’s coal ash permits and found that the permits were significantly less protective than federal law.

Under federal regulations, coal ash units cannot be closed in a way that allows coal ash to continue to spread contamination in groundwater after closure. In contrast, Alabama’s permit program does not require that groundwater contamination be adequately addressed during the closure of these coal ash units.

Specifically, EPA identified deficiencies in Alabama’s permits with closure requirements for unlined surface impoundments, groundwater monitoring networks, and corrective action (i.e., investigation and clean up) requirements. EPA discussed these issues with the Alabama Department of Environmental Management; however, the state agency has not revised its permits or supplemented its application to demonstrate how such permits are as protective as the federal requirements.

To learn more about this denial, visit the Alabama Coal Combustion Residuals Permit Program webpage. EPA solicited comments on the proposal to deny Alabama’s permit program for 60 days, during which EPA held in-person and online public hearings for interested persons to present information and comments about this proposal.

Background

Coal ash is a byproduct of burning coal in coal-fired power plants that, without proper management, can pollute waterways, groundwater, drinking water and the air. Coal ash contains contaminants like mercury, cadmium, chromium and arsenic associated with cancer and other serious health effects. Preventing and reducing exposures to these contaminants is of particular importance to children’s health as they grow and develop.

EPA issued a final rule in April of 2015 regulating coal combustion residuals under RCRA and establishing minimum national standards governing the disposal of CCR from electric utilities in landfills and surface impoundments. At the time the CCR rule was issued, EPA did not have authority under RCRA to approve state permit programs for CCR units. Instead, utilities were responsible for directly implementing the requirements of EPA’s 2015 CCR rule, which were enforceable only through citizen suits.

Congress recognized the essential role of the states in its passage of the 2016 Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation (WIIN) Act. Among other changes, the act amended RCRA to provide EPA with authority to approve state permit programs to operate in lieu of the federal regulations, provided the state requirements meet the federal standards.

Applications must provide evidence of permit programs or other systems of prior approval and be as protective as the federal regulations. Once approved, the state permit programs operate in place of the federal program for coal ash disposal.

Once states have approved CCR permit programs in place, the WIIN Act contains provisions for how and when states must update their approved programs when changes are made to the CCR requirements at the federal level. EPA encourages states with coal ash facilities to apply to establish their permit programs. Many states have engaged with EPA on how to set up their programs and how their current state regulations could be revised to incorporate the federal requirements. Visit the Permit Programs for CCR webpage for details.

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