The Environmental Protection Agency has shifted coal ash permitting from a federal responsibility to a state one in two states. Oklahoma became the first state to qualify and be approved to manage its own program in June 2018. Georgia followed suit in December 2019. The permitting process will remain a federal responsibility in each of the other 48 states, as well as Native American reservations, according to a report from Utility Dive.
The response to the changes in Georgia and Oklahoma have been mixed, with strong reactions on both sides. Many environmental groups believe that state management will be more lax than federal standards, allowing for more pollution. Others, including industry insiders and leaders at the EPA, claim that states will be more knowledgeable of local needs and adaptable to specific situations. Former EPA Administrator, Scott Pruitt, who led the organization when Oklahoma received permitting power, described the changes as a way to give permitting power to officials with area specific experience, according to StateImpact NPR.
"This historic announcement places oversight of coal ash disposal into the hands of those who are best positioned to oversee coal ash management: the officials who have intimate knowledge of the facilities and the environment in their state," said Pruitt, during a speech acknowledging Oklahoma's permitting program. Pruitt was the Attorney General of Oklahoma prior to serving as EPA Administrator.
Many environmentalists, meanwhile, are concerned about the changes because they don't believe that state standards in Georgia and Oklahoma are as stringent as the federal ones. In Oklahoma, groups claim that there has already been an uptick in coal ash pollution. A study by two environmental nonprofits, Earthjustice and the Environmental Integrity Project, found groundwater contamination at four dumping sites. The report also accused utility companies of making data that was supposed to be publicly available difficult to find. In one case, the report noted that a power plant owner "obscured" data by burying it in a report that was over 3,000 pages long.
According to the EPA, coal ash is one of the most common types of industrial waste in the United States, with nearly 130 million tons generated in 2014 alone. Coal ash contains dangerous chemicals like arsenic, cadmium and mercury. It can also discharge into the ground, waterways and the air. For that reason, power plants are supposed to follow specific protocol for how they dispose of coal ash. Options for disposal include surface impoundments, landfills and, in cases where the plant possesses a specific permit, water discharge. Major federal efforts to regulate coal ash pollution began with the Disposal Coal Combustion Residuals from Electric Utilities rule, which was finalized in April, 2015. A similar bill passed through Congress and was signed into law by President Barack Obama.
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