Three years ago this month, I told the people of Alabama that the Alabama Department of Environmental Management was doing everything in its power to ensure that the utility’s plan to close and secure coal ash ponds protected our land and water. I promised to do everything possible. Current and future resources.
Despite recent arguments to the contrary, we have kept our word.
Since then, and even before that, all the steps ADEM has taken to ensure that the millions of tons of coal combustion residue (CCR), or coal ash, that have accumulated over decades in bulk storage sites at power plants are disposed of. The goal was to make sure that it was done. in a safe, responsible and effective manner.
We have involved the public every step of the way.
During the Obama administration, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency adopted federal regulations governing CCR following the collapse of the TVA coal ash impoundment in Tennessee in 2008. This regulation he entered into force in 2015.
Three years later, the Alabama Environmental Control Board approved state regulations based on federal EPA regulations.
The goal of federal and state regulations is to provide guidelines for closing CCR ponds to eliminate the threat of spills and to prevent or reduce the impact on groundwater of contaminants leaching from the site.
During the rulemaking process, ADEM held public hearings, provided public comment periods, and consulted regularly with EPA to ensure the rules were being followed correctly. ADEM regulations mirror federal CCR regulations. In fact, ADEM regulations were developed and revised in consultation with EPA over several years.
EPA says the ADEM rule meets all federal requirements and is at least as protective as the federal rule.
Both EPA and state regulations provide utilities with two options when closing a CCR pond. One option is to excavate millions of tons of CCR and either move it to a lined landfill or find another use for it. Alternatively, you can cap it in place.
ADEM does not and cannot dictate to utilities what methods they must use. Alabama Power, Power South, and TVA all chose to impose the cap on the spot, as they had the right to do so.
Typically, once the cap is installed, the utility company removes and treats the water from the CCR pond. The residue is then moved to a small footprint far from waterways, building a barrier to prevent flooding, keeping the contents in place, and covering the reservoir to prevent water from entering. Finally, groundwater contamination will be remediated and a groundwater monitoring system will be installed to continuously test groundwater quality.
ADEM’s role is to ensure that the plan meets all federal and state standards and provides the necessary safeguards to prevent spills and protect both waterways and groundwater.
My pledge to hold utilities to strict standards comes as ADEM prepares to hold the first in a series of public hearings on utility CCR permit applications. The public hearing gave residents, environmental groups and other members of the public an opportunity to weigh in on the proposed permit.
After careful analysis and consideration of public comments, ADEM engineers and scientists determined that the plan meets the required environmental protection standards.
Of course, not everyone was happy with our decision. This is not surprising, given that some environmental groups are often at odds with regulated industries over permitting issues.
However, what is surprising is the EPA’s new stance against our national plan.
What has changed?
Not ADEM. We did not weaken or relax the state’s CCR regulations. Nor did it deviate from the requirements of the federal CCR regulations.
What changed was EPA’s own interpretation of the rule. The agency is currently proposing to deny Alabama’s CCR permit program, arguing that the state’s CCR closure permit is not as protective as the federal regulations on which it was based.
EPA’s new interpretation has been widely challenged on many fronts, including legal, environmental, economic, practical, and how it may negatively impact disadvantaged communities.
But I want to make one more promise to the people of Alabama.
Although we cannot predict how challenges to EPA’s new interpretation will end, the ADEM CCR regulations and closure permits will comply with all current and future federal regulations and court rulings.
At the end of the day, ADEM’s goals remain the same. It is to ensure that coal combustion residues are disposed of in a timely, safe and appropriate manner in a manner that protects public health and the environment.