Three years ago this month, I promised the people of this state that the Alabama Department of Environmental Management would do everything in its power to ensure that energy companies’ plans to close and secure their coal ash ponds would protect our land and water resources now and in the future.
Despite recent claims to the contrary, we have kept our promise.
All the action ADEM has taken since then – and even before that – has been to make sure that the millions of tons of coal combustion residue (CCR), or coal ash, accumulated over decades in massive tanks at power plants are treated in a safe, responsible and efficient way.
We involved the public every step of the way.
During the Obama administration, the US Environmental Protection Agency adopted a federal rule governing CCR following the 2008 collapse of a TVA coal ash storage facility in Tennessee. This rule came into force in 2015.
Three years later, the Alabama Environmental Management Commission approved state regulations based on the federal EPA rule.
The purpose of both federal and state regulations is to provide guidelines for closing CCR ponds so that they no longer pose a spill threat, and to prevent or reduce impacts to groundwater due to contaminants leaching from the sites.
In our rulemaking process, ADEM held public hearings, provided public comment periods, and consulted regularly with EPA to make sure we got it right. The ADEM regulations mirror the federal CCR regulations. In fact, the ADEM regulations were developed and revised in consultation with EPA over several years.
EPA stated that the ADEM rule meets all federal requirements and is at least as protective as the federal rule.
Both EPA and state rules give electric utilities two options for closing CCR ponds: they can dig up the millions of tons of CCR and either move it to a lined landfill or find another use for it; or they can cap in place.
ADEM does not and cannot dictate to energy companies what method they should use. Alabama Power, PowerSouth and TVA chose to put a cap in place, which they had the right to do.
Typically, with a cap in place, the utility will remove the water from the CCR ponds and treat it. They will then move the debris to a smaller footprint, further away from waterways, build barriers to prevent flooding, and cover tanks to keep the contents in place and the water out. Finally, any groundwater contamination will be remediated and a groundwater monitoring system will be installed to continuously test groundwater quality.
ADEM’s role is to ensure that their plans meet all federal and state standards and provide the safeguards necessary to prevent spills and protect waterways and groundwater.
My pledge to hold power companies to strict standards came as ADEM prepared to hold the first of a series of public hearings on utilities’ CCR permit applications. The hearings allowed the public — residents, environmental groups and others — opportunities to weigh in on the proposed permits.
After careful analysis and consideration of public comments, ADEM engineers and scientists determined that the plans met the required environmental standards.
Of course, not everyone was happy with our decision. This is not surprising given that some environmental groups are often at odds with regulated industries over permitting issues.
What is surprising, however, is the EPA’s new position in opposition to our state program.
Not ADEM. We have not weakened or watered down state CRC regulations. Nor have we deviated from the requirements of the federal CCR rule.
What changed was EPA’s interpretation of its own rule. The agency now argues that Alabama’s CCR closure permits are not as protective as the federal regulations on which they are based and is proposing to reject Alabama’s CCR permit program.
EPA’s new interpretations are widely contested on many fronts – legal, environmental, economic, practical, and how they potentially adversely impact disadvantaged communities.
However, I want to make another promise to the people of Alabama.
Although we cannot predict how challenges to EPA’s new interpretations will end, the ADEM CCR regulations and closure permits will comply with all federal regulations and court decisions now and in the future.
Ultimately, ADEM’s goal remains the same – to ensure that coal combustion residues are disposed of in a timely, safe and proper manner that protects public health and the environment.