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Administrator Lisa P. Jackson, Remarks on Coal Ash Rules Proposal, As Prepared

05/04/2010
Learn more about this proposal at http://www.epa.gov/coalashrule


As prepared for delivery.

Hello and thank you all for joining us today. As you all no doubt know, this has been a very busy time for the Environmental Protection Agency. For more than a week we have been closely focused on the BP Spill in the Gulf of Mexico. I spent last Friday through Sunday on the ground, meeting with local officials and community members and helping to coordinate EPA’s role in the response effort. EPA is continuing its work. In fact, in many ways EPA’s work is just beginning. As President Obama said, we will do “whatever it takes, for as long as it takes, to address the crisis in the Gulf Coast.” I know that everyone at EPA shares that commitment. As a native of the Gulf Coast – and having been there as this crisis was unfolding – I know how important that commitment is to the communities there.

Although our focus remains the situation in the Gulf Coast, we also face other pressing business. Today, I’m happy to announce that EPA is proposing the first-ever national rules to assure the safe management and disposal of coal ash. Coal ash is, of course, a by-product of the burning of coal at power plants, and can pose serious threats to our health and our environment if it is improperly managed. There are numerous hazardous constituents such as arsenic in coal ash that can cause cancer and other serious health effects if they are released to groundwater and contaminate drinking water wells.

Although concerns about risks to drinking water and health have been growing for some time, coal ash came to national attention in late 2008 when a worst-case scenario unfolded as an impoundment holding disposed ash waste broke open in Kingston, TN. The resulting spill covered millions of cubic yards of land and river. It displaced residents…it caused widespread environmental damage…and it has so far required hundreds of millions of dollars in cleanup costs. In response to the Kingston spill, EPA began investigating the structural integrity of coal ash impoundments across the country and incorporating this new concern into our assessment of the safety of liquid impoundments.

The time has come for common-sense national protections to ensure the safe disposal of these materials. Today, we are proposing measures to address the serious risk of groundwater contamination and threats to drinking water, as well as stronger safeguards against structural failures of coal ash impoundments. Today’s proposal is the beginning of a national dialogue. We’re calling for public comment on two approaches available under the Resource Recovery and Conservation Act – the primary law for addressing coal-ash waste. For those of you listening who are familiar with the law – or are planning to check in with an environmental lawyer later – one approach is based on Subtitle C; the other on Subtitle D.

These proposals reflect varying approaches to enforcement and oversight and there will be debate about which will be most effective. However, both proposals reflect a major step forward at the national level in reducing the risks of improper coal ash disposal. They would both require that, for the first time, new landfills install protective engineering controls such as liners and groundwater monitoring to protect groundwater and human health. Under the Subtitle C proposal, surface impoundments would be phased out. Under the Subtitle D proposal, impoundments would require composite liners, which we believe will lead many utilities to seek safer alternatives to impoundments and transition to landfills.

Both proposals would also require greater structural integrity at coal ash impoundments and increased oversight of operations. Combined with stronger measures to assess impoundment safety in the interim, we believe this is the best way to prevent a repeat of the devastating spill in Kingston.

Let me be clear that both proposals would allow for environmentally safe forms of recycling coal ash, known as beneficial uses, without any new restrictions. There has been concern that this rulemaking might discourage these uses. Let emphasize that, after studying the science and the forms of reuse, we believe that there are multiple ways that coal ash can be reused that are not only safe but environmentally beneficial. Safe reuse not only cuts the need for raw materials – saving energy and reduces greenhouse gas emissions – but also reduces the amount of coal ash that is stored in impoundments. EPA and other federal agencies will continue to study these applications in places where we do have concerns. But EPA supports the safe reuse of these materials and under either of our two options, we believe that reuse will continue.

Our goal in this rulemaking is to ensure that the health and the environment of all communities will be protected. Under either option we are confident that management of coal ash will be held to national standards that increase safety and environmental protection. EPA wants to ensure that our ultimate decision is based on the best available science and is taken with the fullest possible extent of public input. We look forward to the comments and the participation of the American people on the choices outlined today. Thank you very much.