EPA oversight focuses on power plant's past use
WASHINGTON (AP)--The Environmental Protection Agency issued preliminary rulings last week seeking to further regulate waste generated by coal-burning power plants, ordering sites to stop dumping waste into unlined storage ponds and speed up plans to close them altogether.
Plants in four states will have to close the coal ash ponds months or years ahead of schedule, the EPA said last Tuesday, citing deficiencies with groundwater monitoring, cleanup or other problems.
Coal ash, the substance that remains when coal is burned to generate electricity, contains a toxic mix of mercury, cadmium, arsenic and other heavy metals. It can pollute waterways, poison wildlife and cause respiratory illness among those living near ponds where the waste is stored.
The actions mark the first time the EPA has enforced a 2015 rule aimed at reducing groundwater pollution from coal-fired power plants.
U.S. coal plants produce about 100 million tons annually of ash and other waste.
The Obama administration regulated the storage and disposal of toxic coal ash for the first time, including a requirement to close coal-ash dumping ponds that were unstable or contaminated groundwater. The Trump administration weakened that rule in 2020, allowing utilities to use cheaper technologies and take longer to comply with pollution reduction guidelines that are less stringent than what the agency originally adopted.
EPA Administrator Michael Regan said the actions announced Tuesday will ensure that coal ash ponds meet strong environmental and safety standards and that operators of industrial facilities are held accountable.
Regan is a former North Carolina environmental regulator who negotiated with Duke Energy what state officials say was the largest cleanup agreement for toxic coal ash.
"Today's actions will help us protect communities and hold facilities accountable," Regan said. "We look forward to working with our state partners to reverse damage that has already occurred."
In separate letters sent Tuesday, EPA denied requests for extensions of coal ash permits by the Clifty Creek power plant in Madison, Indiana; James M. Gavin plant in Cheshire, Ohio; and the Ottumwa plant in Ottumwa, Iowa.
The Greenidge Generation plant in Dresden was ruled ineligible for an extension. The former coal plant now uses natural gas but had asked to continue using the coal combustion residuals (CCR) surface impoundment, C-Pond, until spring of 2023 and complete closure on Oct. 17, 2023.
The EPA said, "This interim determination is being made after the April 11, 2021 deadline to cease receipt of waste; therefore, EPA is proposing to establish a new deadline for Greenidge to cease receipt of waste into the C-Pond of 135 days after EPA's final decision."
Comments on the ruling are being accepted until Feb. 23, 2022. The EPA explained, "For other facilities that have submitted a Part A Demonstration, EPA is proposing to establish a process that will allow them to seek additional time where necessary to address demonstrated grid reliability issues...In the event EPA receives information demonstrating the potential for a temporary outage at this facility to cause grid reliability issues, EPA is proposing that it would provide Greenidge with the opportunity to obtain additional time to operate the impoundment in the event the New York Independent System Operator determines that the temporary outage of the boiler during the period needed to complete construction of alternative disposal capacity would have an adverse impact on reliability."
Greenidge completed the conversion to natural gas in 2017 and its subsidiary, Lockwood Hills LLC, controls the landfill where remnants from the coal plant were stored. Greenidge announced last summer that it would be expediting the closure of the landfill and looking at options for the 143-acre site to have solar panels installed.
On Sunday, Jan. 16, Greenidge reported it had "temporarily curtailed its cryptocurrency mining operations" to supply all of its electrical generation capacity to the New York Independent System Operator. "The facility ran at 100 percent of its rated capacity and supplied that electricity to the NYISO grid," Greenidge said in a press release.
The power plant recently reported it currently has approximately 17,300 cryptocurrency miners in operation at the site with expansion plans to 31,700 miners and eventually 49,000 miners.