E.P.A. Announces Crackdown on Toxic Coal Ash From Landfills

Burning coal for electricity pollutes the air and releases planet-warming greenhouse gases, but some of its most dangerous elements are found in the ash, which is stored in ponds or dry landfills. About half of all the coal ash in the United States — more than a billion tons, according to one study — has gone unregulated.

The new rule is expected to face opposition from utilities and fossil-fuel supporters in Congress, including Senator Joe Manchin III, Democrat of West Virginia, who has personal financial ties to the coal industry.

The proposal comes on the heels of a Biden administration move to slash greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. That prompted Mr. Manchin, the top recipient of oil and gas industry campaign contributions last year, to accuse the Biden administration of being “hellbent on doing everything in their power to regulate coal and gas-fueled power plants out of existence.”

The regulation proposed Wednesday would cover what the agency calls “legacy” coal ash landfills, not current power plant operations.

“For far too long, a large portion of toxic coal ash around the U.S. was left leaching into drinking water supplies without any requirement that it be cleaned up,” said Lisa Evans, the senior counsel for Earthjustice, an environmental group that led the lawsuit to force the E.P.A. to address the unregulated landfills.

Michelle Bloodworth, president of America’s Power, a trade group that represents coal interests, declined to comment, saying she had yet to review the proposed rule.

In 2008, the six-story-tall dike holding back a massive pond of coal waste at a plant in Kingston, Tenn., collapsed, releasing more than a billion gallons of ash and slurry into the surrounding community.

The Kingston coal ash spill remains one of the largest industrial disasters in U.S. history and helped spur the first federal controls on the disposal of coal ash, which were implemented in 2015. The rules imposed stringent inspection and monitoring requirements at coal plants and mandated that plants install technology to protect water supplies from contamination.

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