In February, another incident in North Carolina poured tens of thousands of pounds of coal ash and contaminated water into the Dan River after a pipe from a Duke Energy coal plant malfunctioned. That spill, the third largest coal-ash incident, thrust the issue back into headlines and reenergized calls from the left for tougher regulations.
In the weeks ahead of the rule's release—required under a court settlement with green groups—dozens of environmentalists, citizens groups, and industry sources met with the White House. More than 450,000 comments came in on the proposal.
Even though the rule is less stringent than it might have been, industry groups say they're still concerned about the prospects of a patchwork system of regulations state by state. But the nonhazardous designation, they say, has protected the robust recycling industry for coal ash. Right now, roughly 40 percent of coal-ash waste is recycled in building materials, roadways, and as fertilizer, but reuse has been on the decline amid regulatory uncertainty.
According to the American Coal Ash Association, recycling was down by a half million tons in 2013, the fifth straight year that recycling was below 2008 levels. President Thomas Adams said that was attributable to questions about how the EPA would move.
"Consumers just aren't interested in buying materials if it's classified as hazardous waste, and builders don't want it in their structures," Adams said. "That designation would make recycling this material almost impossible."¦ The evidence says there's nothing to be concerned about, and we should be looking at a solution in recycling."
Industry has also argued that stricter storage regulations would be too expensive and require changes to older impoundments that they say are secure.
The rules also open up questions about enforcement, especially with citizen lawsuits on the table. In a joint statement, expected Senate Environment and Public Works Chairman Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma and incoming freshman Sen. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia said the rule "may not be as bad as some had feared," but noted that it still exposed the power industry to new costs and warned of a potential onslaught of citizen lawsuits.
"This places wealthy, left-wing environmental activist groups in the driver's seat of enforcing this federal rule," they said. "It will lead to excessive litigation and increased costs to consumers while putting at risk the reliability of our electric grid."
But greens say that stronger rules and attention are the only thing that will ensure that states and companies keep the disposal sites clean for nearby communities.
"For decades, states have really failed these communities, giving little to no oversight of how coal ash is regulated," said Dalal Aboulhosn, who works on coal ash for the Sierra Club. "We're talking about waste that contains things like lead, mercury, arsenic, selenium. These are substances the public understands they don't want in their air or their water."