A proposal described as legislation that would allow the state to regulate one of the largest types of industrial waste in the country is moving through the Missouri House.
The bill, which has already cleared the Senate 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 large quantities of coal ash from power plants are 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.
Coal power plants are most often 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 proposal, which was heard Wednesday in the House Utilities Committee, was changed after leaving the Senate to beef up some of the regulations.
Missouri has long provided supervision over coal ash landfill sights. Water discharged from ash ponds into lakes and rivers has also been regulated under permits granted by DNR. The bill in the House deleted the Senate language that would have precluded the permitting process for ash pond disposal.
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.
The need to regulate coal ash disposal became apparent after the devastation left from two spills. The 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 resulting from improper disposal and discharge of coal ash, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) established national rules in 2015 for its management and disposal. In 2016, Congress passed the Water Infrastructure for Improvements to the Nation (WIIN) Act, which gave states a window to customize the rules to fit their needs.
Republican Senator Sandy Crawford of Buffalo, who is sponsoring the measure, says it would let the state DNR tailor regulations for Missouri that would still comply with EPA guidelines.
“This bill will allow DNR to manage a program that’s more state-specific, more than the one-size-fits-all approach that we would have if we go with the EPA program,” said Crawford.
The House bill also does away with a provision Crawford included in the Senate plan that would’ve prevented the state from enacting more robust regulations than the EPA does.
However, the bill maintains that restriction for City Utilities of Springfield’s coal ash landfill and a possible new coal ash landfill,both in karst geology.
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.
The utilities that operate coal-fired powered plants – investor-owned power companies such as Ameren Missouri, customer-owned cooperatives, and city-run municipal power companies – plan to close down and discard many of their coal ash ponds in the upcoming years.
Trey Davis, President of the Missouri Energy Development Association, thinks Crawford’s legislation will serve to streamline the process.
“Through the WIIN Act and through this state-specific program, you have DNR right there at the forefront managing with the utilities the closure of these sights,” said Davis.
Patricia Schuba with the Labadie Environmental Organization has a much more critical view of the utilities’ plans. She contends they want the coal ash bill passed quickly in order to skirt EPA closure requirements set to go take effect in October.
“One of the requirements for closure under the federal rule is that the ash cannot be in contact with groundwater,” Schuba said. “None of these sights meet that criteria.”
Should the bill become law, it would go into effect in late August 28th. Labadie Environmental Organization is a non-profit group that was formed out of concerns over plans for waste disposal at Ameren Missouri’s Labadie power plant west of St. Louis.
One of the most contentious components of the bill allows for “risk-based” based management of coal ash ponds, meaning if a utility can prove there is no immediate risk to the drinking water of the local population, a pond can be closed down and capped with no further action.
Schuba says it would free utilities from responsibility if toxins such as arsenic spread around in the future. “The utilities in the room know that,” said Schuba. “They know that’ll provide an opportunity for them to close these sights in place, with contamination at the sight, and not have to clean it up for closure requirement.”
The coal ash proposal passed through the Utilities Committee by an 8-3 margin during the same hearing. The committee’s three Democrats provided the no votes. The measure will now be scrutinized by another committee before heading to the House floor.
If it’s cleared by the full chamber, it’ll still have to go back to the Senate for approval because of the changes made in the House. The bill will have roughly a month to progress through the entire process before the legislature ends its current session May 18th.