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EPA agrees to issue coal ash rules

The Environmental Protection Agency, in a win for North Carolina environmental groups, has agreed to issue by December the federal government’s first rules on coal ash.

The EPA held hearings on ash in Charlotte and other cities in 2010 but has not issued rules on its disposal. Boone-based Appalachian Voices, Asheville’s Western North Carolina Alliance and other groups filed lawsuits two years ago to force the EPA’s hand.

In a consent decree filed late Wednesday with the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., the EPA agreed to publish a notice of final action by Dec. 19.

“It’s absolutely historic that we’re finally going to have a resolution of this,” said Matt Wasson, Appalachian Voices’ program director. “This has been going on not just since the (Tennessee ash) spill in 2008, but well before that.”

A dike rupture at a Tennessee Valley Authority power plant spilled more than 1 billion gallons of ash slurry in 2008, covering 300 acres and flowing into two rivers. The incident brought national attention to coal ash, which contains metals that can be toxic in high doses.

North Carolina itself has drawn attention for lawsuits filed last year by the state, under pressure from environmental groups, against Duke Energy power plants that store ash in open ponds.

Groundwater is contaminated around each of those 14 ponds, although much of it may come from natural sources. Elements found in ash have also been found in Mountain Island Lake, Charlotte’s main water source, near Duke’s now-closed Riverbend power plant.

Duke agreed last year to pay for a water line to a neighborhood in the expected path of ash contamination in Wilmington. The state also ordered Duke to supply water to a home near Asheville where a well was apparently contaminated by coal ash.

A key decision by the EPA will be whether it deems coal ash to be hazardous waste, as environmentalists wish. Utilities say placing ash in special hazardous-waste landfills would greatly increase their disposal costs.

“We still think there is ample opportunity, and need, for EPA to rule that coal ash is hazardous waste,” said Jared Saylor of the national law firm Earthjustice, which represented the environmental groups.

The EPA has two options for its rules. One, favored by environmentalists, would give states and the EPA authority over ash and effectively ban open ash ponds like Duke’s. The other option, supported by utilities, would give states control and retrofit or phase out ash ponds over five years.

Both versions require new ash landfills to have liners and be monitored to detect contaminated groundwater.

In a statement, the EPA said the consent decree does not dictate the substance of the rule the agency will issue.

Henderson: 704-358-5051; Twitter: @bhender
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