NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — A coalition of environmental groups sued the Environmental Protection Agency on Thursday for its refusal to regulate some former coal ash dumps, saying they were polluting air and groundwater.
A lawsuit filed in federal court in Washington DC seeks to compel the agency to review and revise regulations it deems ‘insufficient to protect human health and the environment’ from solid waste generated by power plants in the coal.
The EPA began regulating coal ash disposal in 2015, following the 2008 collapse of a six-story earth dam outside a Tennessee Valley Authority power plant in Kingston, Tennessee. The disaster released more than a billion gallons of coal ash sludge onto surrounding 300 acres (about 121 hectares), knocking homes off their foundations and clogging the Emory River.
When the EPA was developing its coal ash regulations, many of those concerned about the possible health effects of the ash hoped the agency would declare it a hazardous waste. This did not happen, but the EPA created special rules for its disposal. They included location restrictions, lining requirements to prevent groundwater contamination, and groundwater monitoring to detect leaks.
However, not all coal ash disposal sites have been included in the new regulations. The EPA specifically exempted landfills that stopped receiving new waste before the rule took effect. Since then, many regulated landfills that require groundwater monitoring have subsequently reported dangerous levels of arsenic and other chemicals in nearby groundwater. The lawsuit posits that older, unregulated landfills must also be polluting and should be regulated.
Additionally, contamination from older landfills could mask the problems of newer landfills that are often on the same property, the lawsuit says. That’s because operators of regulated landfills don’t have to deal with groundwater contamination if they can prove it came from another source.
The EPA did not respond to a request for comment Thursday morning.
The lawsuit sheds light on the Bull Run power plant in Clinton, Tennessee, which is also operated by TVA, the nation’s largest utility.
The site contains three separate but adjacent coal ash dumps. One closed in 1992. The second closed in 2015, just before the EPA regulations took effect. The third opened in 2015 and is an active landfill. Even though groundwater from the new landfill has significantly elevated levels of boron, sulphate and other chemicals, TVA does not have to take action because an engineering report attributes the contamination to “pre-existing conditions in the underground waters”.
One of the plaintiff groups is Tennessee-based Statewide Organizing for Community eMpowerment. Member Todd Waterman said in a telephone interview that he saw friends who helped clean up the Kingston coal ash spill fall ill and die. Now he’s worried about what the ash from the Bull Run plant might do to his drinking water.
“I am deeply concerned for my community,” he said in a phone interview about the plant’s planned closure next year. “I don’t want TVA to walk away from this factory and leave all this contamination in place.”
TVA would not respond directly to the lawsuit, but said in an email that it had an “unwavering commitment to protecting the environment.”
Other plaintiffs include the Hoosier Environmental Council in Indiana, the Indiana State Conference and LaPorte County branch of the NAACP, Clean Power Lake County in Illinois, and several national groups, including the Sierra Club and Earthjustice, who filed the lawsuit.
The EPA is required to review and, if necessary, revise regulations such as those for coal ash disposal every three years, which it has not done, according to the lawsuit. The plaintiffs are asking the judge to order a review of the regulations, particularly the exemption for old coal ash dumps. They estimate that there are nearly 300 landfills exempt from regulation in 38 states.
“Regulations regarding these landfills would prevent exposure to deadly coal ash constituents, protect drinking water sources and aquatic ecosystems, and lead to much-needed nationwide cleanups,” the lawsuit states.
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