EPA Issues First-Ever Rule Regulating Toxic Coal Ash, But Is It Enforceable?
After years of delay, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) made history today by issuing the first-ever rule designed to regulate the harmful effects of coal ash. While it’s an important step forward, the rule does not go far enough to protect public health or the environment, declining to classify coal ash as hazardous waste, and sidestepping rigorous enforcement by delegating to state regulators.
Coal ash is a toxic waste product created in the process of burning coal for electricity. It contains numerous hazardous and carcinogenic chemicals such as arsenic, lead, and mercury. Living near coal ash dumps has been linked to heart disease, cancer, and respiratory disease. Utility mismanagement of coal ash waste has resulted in two major coal ash disasters, first in 2008 when the town of Kingston, Tennessee was buried when a dam holding back a coal ash was breached, and then a second disaster in 2014 when a Duke Energy drain pipe flooded toxic coal ash sludge into the Dan River in North Carolina. In addition to producing toxic waste that threatens communities, burning coal for electricity is one of the biggest global contributors to greenhouse gas emissions and climate change.
As You Sow has been working with companies to address coal ash risks since 2009. Our shareholder resolutions on coal ash risk at Consumers Energy and Montana-Dakota Utilities were the first ever filed on the issue, and resulted in high levels of support, with both resolutions receiving over 40% of shares voted. Environmental resolutions that receive this level of support are significant, and send a strong message from investors that the industry’s toxic coal ash management is inadequate, and poses a risk to communities, environments, and shareholders. Similar resolutions at Xcel Energy, PSE&G, FirstEnergy, Entergy, Dominion, and Duke Energy in 2011 and 2012 also received high levels of shareholder support.
- MDU Resources Group (Montana-Dakota Utilities Company): MDU generates, transmits, and distributes electricity to more than 250 communities. They are the lead developer in the Big Stone II coal plant from which three other power companies have withdrawn due to the risk involved. MDU’s energy mix includes 54% coal.
- CMS Energy (Consumers Energy): CMS is one of the nation’s largest combination utilities serving more than 6 million people. CMS is the lead developer in a coal plant near Bay City, Michigan, a plant that the Michigan Public Service Commission staff considers unnecessary. CMS’s energy mix includes 47.5% coal.
As You Sow also coordinated an investor letter, representing over $240 billion in assets under management, to the EPA in support of the “Subtitle C” regulations governing coal ash disposal. For more coverage of the letter, see the video above from “CSR Minute.”
The ash residue from coal combustion contains arsenic, mercury, lead, and other heavy metals. Disposal of this residue is currently not regulated and is stored in open ponds where it can leach into ground water. Coal combustion waste (both in the air and the ash) has been linked to cancer, organ failure, and other serious health problems. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found that “Pollutants in coal combustion wastewater are of particular concern because they can occur in large quantities (i.e., total pounds) and at high concentrations …in discharges and leachate to groundwater and surface waters.”