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The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has proposed a rule amending the guidelines for disposal of waste from coal combustion under the title “Hazardous and Solid Waste Management System: Disposal of Coal Combustion Residuals From Electric Utilities; Amendments to the National Minimum Criteria (Phase One).” These guidelines were originally detailed in the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), which gave the EPA the power to control hazardous waste from generation to storage and disposal.

Coal Combustion Residuals (coal ash or CCR) are a source of industrial waste in the United States. Although the use of renewable energy sources is growing, coal based energy is still the second-largest source of emissions in the United States. Coal ash is a black, sludge-like substance, which may contain many toxic heavy metals. CCR has become a national problem because many of the disposal sites are unlined, allowing seepage into surrounding communities via groundwater intrusion and spills.

The EPA’s motivation for the proposed rule is economic: the EPA estimates a cost savings of between $32 and $100 million per year over 100 years at a 7% discount rate from amending the RCRA. These savings mostly come from allowing alternative protection standards, allowing sites to forgo clean-up procedures in certain situations, and enacting less strict corrective action procedures for spills that are small in magnitude and scope.

The proposed rule will:

  • Give states increased flexibility for coal ash permit programs, allowing the use of alternative risk-based groundwater protection standards for places with no maximum contaminant level, modifying current regulations 40 CFR 257.95
  • Change the required corrective action 40 CFR 257.97 and 40 CFR 257.98  allowing certain contaminated sites to forgo clean-up procedures in certain situations (if the water source will not be used as drinking water, for example)
  • Allow states to suspend groundwater monitoring requirements 40 CFR 258.51 if the groundwater can be classified as having no potential to migrate
  • Allow certain CCR to be added to closure situations and make closure requirements less strict 40 CFR 257.101
  • Outline new height limits for grassy and woody vegetations for slope protection of surface impoundments
  • Clarify size and scope of non-groundwater releases that require immediate corrective action 40 CFR 257.96-257.98
  • Add Boron to list of contaminants requiring corrective action

This proposed rule comes in the context of the Trump Administration’s push to roll back federal regulations, most specifically environmental policies that could hinder the development of the fossil fuel industry or require too high of an economic investment. The Obama administration had increased regulations on coal ash residues after large spills in 2008. However, despite the 2010 revised rule, mismanagement of coal ash and large-scale spills still occur.


The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (1976) developed a framework for the EPA to regulate the production, transportation, storage, and disposal of hazardous and non-hazardous solid waste throughout the country. Prompted by coal ash spills in Tennessee in 2010, the EPA proposed coal ash disposal regulations under the RCRA in order to classify coal ash as waste under Subtitle D of the RCRA.. This action made coal ash subject to regulation and set minimum criteria for the disposal of such waste.

Coal ash disposal is an issue because many of the pits or landfills where it is disposed are unlined, uncapped, or both, meaning that it is easy for contaminants to travel to surrounding communities through groundwater and air. In addition to movement through groundwater, the sheer amount of coal ash waste means that landfills can overflow or pipes can break, as in Eden, North Carolina where a broken pipe caused one of the nation’s largest spills. This 2014 spill resulted in 39,000 tons of coal ash to flow into the Dan River.

The initial review of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act came in 2008 in response to the large coal ash spill in Tennessee. As a result, a comprehensive study began in order to determine the negative effects of coal ash, entitled the “Regulatory Impact Analysis for EPA’s Proposed RCRA Regulation of Coal Combustion Residues (CCR) Generated by the Electric Utility Industry,” published on April 30, 2010. This study outlines the generation of coal ash waste (or coal combustion residuals), the amount nationally produced, the cost for disposal, the importance of preventing future spills, and the prevalence of electric utility plants near minority and low-income populations. Following this review, an updated rule was published on April 17, 2015 entitled “Hazardous and Solid Waste Management System; Disposal of Coal Combustion Residuals from Electric Utilities,” which the current proposed rule modifies.

Relevant Science 

Science Module: Stream Ecology

Coal Ash

CCR, or coal ash, are the particles left behind from the production of coal-fueled power plants, and can vary in chemical compositions, mostly containing aluminum, calcium, and silica oxides and well as heavy metals such as lead and arsenic. Coal ash may be recycled in “beneficial use,” and can be added as an ingredient to concrete and gypsum products. However, the heavy metals contained in coal ash can contribute to a variety of human health hazards, such as respiratory illness (e.g., asthsma), cell death, and cancer. A report published by the Healthy Energy Initiative concluded that “air pollution from coal plants…causes abnormal neurological development in children…and cancer.” Similarly, a report by Physicians for Social Responsibility states that “coal ash toxics have the potential to injure all of the major organ systems, damage physical health and development, and even contribute to mortality.”

When coal ash is produced from coal power plants, it must be transported to a nearby pond or small body of water for storage and cleanup. However, CCR ponds are not impervious to leakage and surrounding communities may be exposed to hazardous materials in their water, air, and soil. In 2010, the journal Environmental Science and Technology published a report by Duke University scientists detailing the environmental impacts of the coal ash spill in Kingston, Tennessee over 18 months. This research team concluded that the reactive arsenic in coal ash was particularly toxic for surrounding ecosystems, causing death and mutation of plant and wildlife populations that live nearby.

The most common way that companies are proposing to reinforce lined or unlined coal ash disposal sites that are leaking is through capping. The capping process involves the installation of multiple layers of protective materials over the top of pits with coal ash, including a synthetic barrier, drainage layer, soil later, topsoil layer, and vegetation. These capped pits should also have groundwater monitoring wells placed nearby to assess pollution movement. From 2014 EPA data, there are over 1400 coal ash waste storage locations in the US, 331 of which have been rated as “High and Significant” hazard.

Controversies & Implications 

Community and environmental groups have expressed concerns that decreased federal regulations and a heavier emphasis on state-level authority will worsen existing environmental problems due to pollution from coal ash waste. A recent analysis completed by US utilities revealed high levels of pollutants and groundwater contamination at coal power plants across the country, indicating that increased coal ash regulations from the 2015 rule have not been effective in decreasing pollution near disposal pits.

The effects of living near coal ash containment sites include increased risk of cancer, heart damage, lung disease, kidney disease, reproductive problems, gastrointestinal illness, and birth defects, according to Physicians for Social Responsibility, the US affiliate of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War. A 2010 EPA assessment estimated that people living within a mile of unlined coal ash storage ponds have a 1 in 50 chance of developing cancer over their lifetimes above baseline rates. These health effects come from coal ash leaking into groundwater and thus contaminating drinking water as well as CCRs becoming airborne from uncovered landfills.

Advocates for more stringent coal ash waste regulation have also pointed to the proposed rule’s impact on environmental justice. The US Commission on Civil Rights has found that many of those living nearest to coal ash storage pits are minority and low-income communities. More than 1.5 million people of color live in the catchment areas of coal ash pits at 277 power plants throughout the country, according to a recent post by the Environmental Defense Fund.

Earlier this year, the EPA rejected a civil rights complaint from the residents of Uniontown, Alabama, which is 90% black and has a median household of $14,000. Those residents sought to address the effects of the 4 million tons of coal ash that were transported to the town for storage after the Tennessee Valley spill, which they claim has resulted in asthma, nerve damage, and a variety of other health issues throughout the community. Environmental health groups fear that decision, along with this proposed rule, may open the door for polluting companies to avoid clean-up responsibilities by allowing regulators case-by-case discretion.

Endorsements & Opposition 


Steven C. Whitworth, senior director for environmental policy and analysis at Ameren Missouri, in a comment: “Ameren Missouri supports the increased flexibility and site-specific considerations that the Phase One proposal allows. The modifications below simply return authority to the state directors to oversee processes, techniques, and standards on a site-specific basis where adverse effects are not reasonably probable from the CCR units within their states.”


Frank Holleman, senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center, in a statement at a public hearing: “We have worked in communities throughout the Southeast, including areas that are very politically conservative and that voted heavily for President Trump. I have never heard a community ask for less protection from coal ash. Instead, communities throughout the South have asked for more protection…There is no call at the local level for this watering down of coal ash protections — these proposals are purely a creation of the Washington special interests.”


The period for public comment on the proposed rule closed on April 30, 2018.

Primary Author 
Erin Viere
Dan Copple; Jack Zhou. Ph.D.
Recommended Citation 

Duke SciPol. "Environmental Protection Agency's Proposed Rule to Modify Coal Ash Disposal Regulations" available at (05/01/2018).

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