On Monday, November 4, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced two proposed regulations — one that applies to the management of coal combustion residuals (CCR) from electric utilities and one that revises the effluent limitation guidelines affecting wastewater management from steam electric power plants.
“Today’s proposed actions were triggered by court rulings and petitions for reconsideration on two 2015 rules that placed heavy burdens on electricity producers across the country,” EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said. “We are proposing both at the same time in order to provide more certainty to the American public. These proposed revisions support the Trump administration’s commitment to responsible, reasonable regulations by taking a commonsense approach, which also protects public health and the environment.”
“We applaud the Trump EPA’s latest efforts to protect coal mining and the livelihoods of those who depend on its success in West Virginia,” West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey said. “The proposed regulations will improve the regulatory burden on the coal industry and lower the cost of electricity for West Virginians.”
In 2015, the EPA established a rule that set solid waste requirements for the management of coal combustion residuals, commonly known as coal ash, fly ash, bottom ash, boiler slag, and flue gas desulfurization materials generated from coal-fired electricity utilities, in landfills and impoundments, along with inspection, monitoring, record keeping and reporting requirements. In 2018, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned certain provisions of that rule and remanded some provisions back to the agency.
The proposed CCR rule amends certain closure provisions in the regulations for the disposal of coal ash.
In August, EPA proposed a regulation to address issues associated with piles of coal ash, which supports beneficial use while providing protection for human health and the environment. A benefit includes the reduced need for CCR disposal in landfills.
The EPA said the vast majority of the 2015 CCR rule remains in place, and its implementation continues. All units managing coal ash are required to monitor groundwater, publicly report the data, and take action to address exceedances of the groundwater protection standards.
The proposal changes the deadline for initiating closure of all unlined surface impoundments containing coal ash and for impoundments located in close proximity to aquifers to August 31, 2020. Facilities must stop placing waste into these units, and either retrofit them or begin closure.
It also includes revisions to the alternate closure provisions that would allow certain facilities additional time to develop alternate capacity to manage their waste streams (both coal ash and non-coal ash) before they must initiate closure of their surface impoundments.
A court-mandated change in the classification of compacted-soil lined or clay-lined surface impoundments from “lined” to “unlined” means that clay-lined surface impoundments are no longer considered lined units and will need to be retrofitted or comply with closure requirements. Also, all unlined units are required to retrofit or close, not just those that have detected groundwater contamination above regulatory levels.
The EPA said these CCR management regulations will provide a workable and reasonable framework for facilities to follow while enabling states to more easily develop CCR permit programs and submit them to the EPA for approval.
In 2016, Congress passed the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation (WIIN) Act, which gave states the authority to operate coal ash management permit programs in lieu of the federal requirements. However, the EPA still must determine that the state’s requirements are as protective as the federal standards.
The EPA said it is currently working with several states with coal ash facilities to establish their own permit programs. Last year, the EPA approved Oklahoma’s coal ash program and this year has proposed the approval of Georgia’s program.
EPA will be proposing additional updates to the 2015 CCR rule to implement the WIIN Act, respond to petitions, implement court decisions, and apply lessons-learned over the last several years.
In addition to this proposed regulation change, the EPA is also seeking input on proposed revisions to its Steam Electric Power Plant Effluent Guidelines Rule issued in 2015.
Under the Clean Water Act, the EPA establishes regulations that apply to categories of industrial wastewater dischargers. Known as Effluent Limitations Guidelines and Pretreatment Standards (ELGs), these regulations limit wastewater discharges into surface waters and wastewater treatment plants.
In 2015, EPA issued a rule that established new ELGs for the nation’s steam electric power plants. That rule was subject to legal challenge and the agency received multiple petitions for administrative reconsideration, including a request for reconsideration from the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Office of Advocacy. In response, the EPA undertook a rulemaking that changed the earliest compliance date in the 2015 rule from November 1, 2018, to November 1, 2020, to allow for reconsideration of the regulatory provisions.
The agency began a rulemaking process to reconsider the 2015 ELGs for two specific waste streams produced by steam electric power plants: flue gas desulfurization (FGD) wastewater and bottom ash (BA) transport water.
The EPA said its proposal would achieve greater pollution reductions than the 2015 rule, at a lower cost. By leveraging newer and less costly pollution control technologies and taking a flexible, phased-in implementation approach, EPA’s proposal is estimated to save more than $175 million annually in pre-tax compliance costs while reducing the amount of pollutants by approximately 105 million pounds per year over the 2015 rule.
The proposed rule would change the technology-basis for treatment of FGD wastewater and BA transport water; revise the voluntary incentives program for FGD wastewater; and add subcategories for high-flow facilities, low-utilization units, and facilities nearing retirement.
The EPA is holding two concurrent 60-day public comment periods, during which one virtual public hearing will be held for each rule.