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Waterkeeper Comments on the EPA’s Proposed Coal Ash Rule Rollback


Environmental Protection Agency
Office of Resource Conservation and Recovery
1200 Pennsylvania Avenue, N. W.
MC 5305P
Washington, D.C. 20460

Re: Docket ID No. EPA-HQ-OLEM-2017-0286 “Hazardous and Solid Waste Management System: Disposal of Coal Combustion Residuals from Electric Utilities; Amendments to the National Minimum Criteria (Phase One); Proposed Rule.”

Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper (BNW) respectfully submits these formal comments to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regarding proposed amendments to the 2015 Hazardous and Solid Waste Management System; Disposal of Coal Combustion Residuals from Electric Utilities,” (80 FR 21302) (CCR rule).

BNW is a community-based not-for-profit that protects and restores our water and surrounding ecosystems for the benefit of current and future generations. As members of the Niagara River Remedial Action Committee (RAC), Chair of the Niagara Relicensing Environmental Coalition (NREC), Co-Chair of the Greenway Ecological Standing Committee (GESC), and Coordinator of the Buffalo River Remedial Action Plan (RAP), BNW is charged with a community leadership role, ensuring that the region’s natural resources are protected for the public trust and in regard to human and ecological health and function.

The Great Lakes contain 84% of North America’s fresh surface water, and our community in Western New York relies on this drinking water resource for our lives and livelihoods. The Great Lakes, a source of drinking water for 40 million people in the United States and Canada, are at risk due to the production and storage of coal ash at dozens of coal-fired power plants located in close proximity to shoreline areas. The proposed amendments to the CCR rule have the potential to have significant adverse ecological, environmental, and human health effects in our community. We are a community that is already affected by the burning, processing, and storage of coal ash and related materials. Specifically, the Niagara River may be directly affected by revisions to the CCR rule related to coal ash storage, management, and monitoring of active and closed coal ash settling ponds and dry storage landfills.

The CCR waste site associated with the C.R. Huntley Generating Station contains extremely high levels of contaminants associated with coal ash. Located directly on the Niagara River, groundwater flows through the site into the river. Groundwater monitoring wells required under the 2015 CCR rules, show toxic pollutants such as arsenic as being ten times higher than upgradient monitoring wells, and up to six times higher than the Federal Drinking Water Standard (MCL). Total boron is seen in concentrations nearly eight times higher than the upgradient well, and two to three times higher than the Child Health Advisory (CHA) standard. Boron levels over 0.05 mg/L generally indicate coal ash contamination. The fact that upgradient “baseline” levels of boron are 1.0-1.8 mg/L indicate that even “clean” land meant to reflect baseline conditions is heavily impacted by coal ash.

  • 257.95(h) and (j)

Determining when cleanup is required by the use of alternative “risk-based” groundwater protection standards (GWPS) rather than being based off of background concentrations of contaminants will lead to uneven cleanup levels in different states, putting some communities at greater risk for exposure to dangerous contaminants. Additionally, by letting a utility choose an “independent technical expert” in lieu of a Federal or State regulator to establish alternative risk-based GWPS will allow them the opportunity to minimize or avoid otherwise-required cleanup actions.

  • 257.97(f)

EPA’s proposal to allow State Directors to determine that cleanup is not necessary based on provisions established for municipal and household waste landfills is misguided. CCR wastes have very little in common with household wastes, and should be regulated as a dangerous medium rather than ordinary trash.

This rule change would allow EPA to not require cleanup of CCR contaminants released to groundwater when that groundwater is “contaminated by multiple sources.” CCR-producing utilities such as the C.R. Huntley Generating Station on the Niagara River are generally located in heavily-industrialized areas which impact groundwater. Not requiring cleanup of CCR waste due to the presence of other contaminants will result in toxic pollution entering waterways and groundwater.

Additionally, by not requiring cleanup of CCR pollutants emitted into Class III groundwater (groundwater that is not used as a drinking water source), EPA will still be putting ecological habitat and waterbodies with hydrologic connections to contaminated groundwater at risk.

  • 257.91 – 257.95

The proposed rule to suspend groundwater monitoring requirements for CCR waste facilities upon the utility’s insistence that there is not potential migration of hazardous contaminants in groundwater opens the door for utilities to forgo groundwater monitoring with little or no Federal or State oversight. Due to the extremely toxic effects these contaminants have on water quality, ecology, and human health, groundwater monitoring at CCR waste sites should be mandatory.

  • 257.98 & 257.104

Removing the current requirement that utility operators which produce CCR waste must monitor groundwater after a cleanup for a period of three years will result in sites being potentially out of compliance after a brief monitoring period. Without long-term monitoring in place, slow moving plumes that were not previously detected, or that were temporarily in compliance, will not be discovered in a timely manner, if at all.

Additionally, reducing post-closure monitoring periods from the current 30-year time period will result in aging, failing, and leaking landfill infrastructure to go unnoticed. Long-term monitoring is especially important in highly populated regions such as Buffalo-Niagara, where the effects to surrounding communities, critical habitat, and drinking water sources such as Lake Erie and the Niagara River can be massive.

  • § 257.60 – 257.64

Perhaps the biggest concern that BNW has for the proposed rule amendments is in the changes to protective location restrictions. This proposed rule change would allow utility owners/operators to make determinations that CCR waste dumps do not need to be closed even if they are located in groundwater, wetlands, floodplains, fault zones, seismic zones, and unstable areas. Under current rules, coal ash disposal units located in sensitive or dangerous locations where harm to the environment and human health is likely must show that they have safety measures in place, or be closed by October 2018. Weakened location restrictions for coal ash disposal dumps only compounds and expedites the impact that these hazardous contaminants will have on human health and the environment.

Additionally, these revisions allow for the possibility that new coal ash dumps may be located within five feet of groundwater, wetlands, floodplains, fault zones, seismic zones, and unstable areas.

Easing or removing location restrictions has the potential to greatly affect the Great Lakes and the Niagara River. The complex hydrologic systems and surrounding communities in this region are already heavily affected and impaired by legacy and industrial pollution. BNW urges the EPA to keep the current location restrictions in place, unchanged.

Thank you for the opportunity to comment on the proposed changes to the 2015 CCR rules. Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper maintains the position that the proposed changes to the EPA’s 2015 CCR rules do not adequately protect critical ecosystems, drinking water sources, and human health in the Great Lakes Basin and Niagara River Watershed.


Jill Jedlicka
Executive Director and WATERKEEPER