Oklahoma DEQ’s Toxic Coal Ash Plan Threatens Public

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U.S. EPA to Hold Feb 13 Hearing on Proposal to Replace Federal Requirements

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will hold a public hearing on a federal proposal to approve the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality’s (ODEQ) deficient rules on coal ash pollution on Tuesday, Feb. 13, beginning at 9 am (CST) at the ODEQ building located at 707 N. Robinson Ave., Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.

The EPA adopted national regulations for the operation and design of coal ash dumps in 2015. In 2016, Congress passed a law allowing states to adopt their own rules for coal ash dumps as long as those rules are “at least as protective” as the EPA’s. ODEQ is proposing to take over regulation of coal ash disposal from the EPA, and the EPA must decide whether to approve ODEQ’s rules.  

For decades, companies dumped coal ash – the waste that is left over at coal-burning power plants – in ponds and landfills. These coal ash ponds and landfills often lack liners to prevent contaminants from leaking out, and also are often sited near waterways. Coal ash contains toxic substances known to cause cancer and other human health risks, including arsenic, cadmium, lead, mercury, selenium, thallium, and hexavalent chromium. When utilities store and dispose of coal ash without proper safeguards, these hazardous chemicals can enter the air, groundwater, surface water and soil, poisoning nearby communities and waterways.

“This is our groundwater and health at stake,” said Johnson Bridgwater, Director of the Oklahoma Chapter of the Sierra Club. “We cannot let these companies walk away from their responsibility to safely manage and clean up pollution at coal ash disposal sites.”

For example, in Oklahoma, one coal ash disposal site is located on the banks of the Verdigris River below Oologah Lake and another is located along the banks of the Grand River near Chouteau. Groundwater testing at these sites – AEP/PSO’s Northeastern Power Station and the GRDA’s Grand River Energy Center – shows that those sites have been releasing toxic contamination into nearby groundwater for years.

“We are already seeing coal ash sites in Oklahoma causing contamination,” said Earl Hatley, the Grand Riverkeeper. “On the banks of the Grand River, we have one site with elevated levels of arsenic in the groundwater.”

The coal ash dumped in abandoned mines in Bokoshe has caused severe pollution in the community. However, ODEQ’s rules do nothing to address this issue, as they mirror the federal rules in giving an exemption for coal ash that is stored in abandoned mines.

In 2016, at the behest of industry seeking to avoid third-party lawsuits, ODEQ created a set of rules on permitting coal ash ponds and landfills to replace the federal requirements. The rules limit the public’s right to have a say in whether coal ash sites meet the regulatory requirements, and, in some cases, even prevent the public from challenging flawed permits. More specifically, it appears that the public has no opportunity to comment on permits for existing coal ash landfills and little chance to comment on permits for existing coal ash ponds. For existing coal ash sites, the public is not allowed to challenge permits issued by ODEQ – even if they have inadequate protections.

“ODEQ’s new coal ash permitting rules significantly limit the public’s right to know about and meaningfully participate in regulatory actions at these sites, even when a proposed action would endanger their health or pollute our state’s waters,” said Kelly Hunter Foster, Senior Attorney for Waterkeeper Alliance.

Under the rules, coal ash operators are required to submit plans for how ash dump operators will monitor groundwater for dangerous pollutants, how they will safely close the dumps, and how they will make sure coal ash pollution is not escaping from a dump. However, ODEQ’s rules do not require the state to meaningfully oversee these plans, and severely limit public input and review of them.

“These plans could have significant impacts on people’s health and the environment – coal ash operators must be held accountable to make sure they are taking responsible action to minimize risk,” said Rebecca Jim, the Tar Creekkeeper.

Permits issued under these rules would also be “for life,” which means that the public will likely have very limited chances to weigh in on industry plans to monitor groundwater, remedy contamination, or close ash sites.

“Laws protecting against air pollution and pollution of rivers and streams don’t allow forever permits,” said Earthjustice attorney Jennifer Cassel. “It makes no sense for our groundwater – often the very water we drink – to receive any less protection.”

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