The Missouri Senate has passed a measure that would allow the state to enact regulations on one of the largest types of industrial waste in the country.
The legislation would give the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) the authority to establish rules and approve target levels for the management of “coal ash”.
Coal ash is produced from the burning of coal in coal-fired power plants. It can be recycled for use in materials such as concrete, but coal ash from power plants is largely disposed of in disposal units known as landfills and ash ponds.
Utilities create ash ponds by digging holes in the ground next to their coal-burning power plants. They transport the coal ash to those holes with water.
The plants themselves are typically located next to bodies of water in order to use that water as a cooling agent in their creation of energy. Since the water is readily available, it’s also used to deliver the coal ash to the ash ponds.
The state, through a permitting process, allows utilities to discharge coal ash wastewater from ash ponds to lakes and rivers but does not otherwise regulate coal ash ponds. Missouri has regulated coal ash landfills since before 1997 but has provided minimal oversight of ash ponds in the form of permitting.
Disposal of coal ash is sensitive because it contains toxins that are harmful to humans, including arsenic, mercury, cadmium, and lead. Exposure to those elements, which are heavy metals, can cause cancer, brain damage, and liver damage.
Two large spills brought to light the need for regulation of coal ash disposal. Those spills – in Kingston, Tennessee in 2008 and Eden, North Carolina in 2014 – caused widespread environmental and economic damage to nearby waterways and properties.
To address the risks caused by improper disposal and discharge of coal ash, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) established national rules in 2015 for its management and disposal.
Republican Sandy Crawford of Buffalo, who sponsored the measure which passed the state Senate, says her legislation would carve out regulations of coal ash within the EPA guidelines that are tailored to Missouri.
“This bill would allow DNR (Department of Natural Resources) to manage a program that is state specific rather than a one size fits all that would be handed down by the EPA and the federal government if we do not adopt a state policy,” said Crawford.
Regulated utilities would finance the state’s program through fees they would pay. Crawford says the Natural Resources Department and the utilities collaborated to craft the legislation together. She also notes that the EPA still has to approve the state’s plan to manage coal ash and can reject it if the regulations are deemed to be too weak.
Under 2015 EPA regulations, coal-burning power plants were required to post their first set of groundwater data by March 2nd of this year.
According to Maxine Lipeles, Director of the Interdisciplinary Environmental Clinic at Washington University in St. Louis, the recent data shows that three of the four Ameren Missouri coal plants have arsenic levels above the federal drinking water standards while the utility giant’s Rush Island plant south of St. Louis has arsenic levels 20-25 times higher than the federal standards.
Lipeles contends the federal government under President Trump and EPA Director Scott Pruitt is in the process of weakening the 2015 rules established under President Obama in an effort to be more business-friendly.
She also notes the legislation passed by the Senate stipulates in two places that the state’s regulations can’t exceed the federal standards, which she claims will keep the utilities largely free of oversight.
“What this bill is designed to do is to give the utilities a get out of jail free card to avoid cleaning up the contamination, and to just leave it there and walk away from it,” said Lipeles.
The measure also has a component allowing for “risk-based” based management of the coal ash ponds, meaning if a utility can prove there is no immediate risk to the drinking water of the local population, no action needs to be taken.
Democratic Senator Jill Schupp of Creve Coeur thinks the policy would set a dangerous precedent. “I am not willing to let the utility companies walk away because that water is not currently posing a risk to the people who live in the area.”
The Senate passed the proposal by a 21-9 vote on party lines in the Republican-dominated chamber. It was earlier cleared to advance out of a committee unanimously 11-0.
Among the supporters of the legislation are the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Associated Electric Coops, a utility that provides power to a large swath of rural Missouri and relies largely on electricity generated from two coal-fired power plants. A major opponent of the measure is the Sierra Club of Missouri and the Labadie Environmental Organization.
The proposal passed by the Senate is similar to a bill in the House sponsored by Republican Representative Travis Fitzwater of Holts Summit which has yet to reach that chamber’s floor.