Two U.S. power grid operators say new coal ash rules could make power supply less reliable

Two of the country’s grid operators are warning the Environmental Protection Agency that enforcing coal ash regulations poses risks to the reliability of electric service in much of the country.

Comments from PJM Interconnect and the Midcontinent Independent System Operator, or MISO, are buried deep in government records used by the EPA to share public records and gather feedback on the agency’s first-ever enforcement of management regulations. waste from burning coal at power stations. They worry that the actions taken by the EPA could at least temporarily shut down coal-fired power plants when there is a need for their electricity.

Grid operators’ comments could play into a lawsuit filed earlier this month by an organization representing electric utilities against the Biden administration over its decision in January to start enforcing those same coal ash regulations. . The regulations were passed by the Obama administration in 2015 after decades of pressure from environmental groups and industry resistance over how best to manage one of the nation’s largest industrial waste streams.

The regulations required most of the country’s roughly 500 unlined coal ash surface tanks to stop receiving waste and begin closing by April 2021, among other requirements for coal ash landfills. The rules also exempted landfills that had already been closed, and as a result, the EPA may have left as much as half of all coal-burning waste ever produced in the United States unregulated by the EPA.

But ash pits, often in water, are filled with contaminants like mercury, cadmium and arsenic, and regularly pollute groundwater and send air pollution particles into nearby communities. They were at the center of the law enforcement announcement in January.

The Trump administration had allowed utilities to request compliance delays, but in January the EPA said it was taking action on the first nine of 57 filed extension requests, denying three, in approving one, finding four incomplete and deeming one ineligible.

Then, on April 8, the electric utilities retaliated with a motion in the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia circuit of the utility’s solid waste management business group, which includes many electric utilities across the country.

The USWAG, in its court filing, claimed the EPA in January issued “regulations and requirements…without notice or comment,” as required by law, and sought judicial review of the EPA’s actions. agency.

Jim Roewer, the utilities group chief executive, did not immediately return requests for comment.

Environmental groups who fought for the 2015 coal ash regulations were excited to see the Biden administration start enforcing them and expected to get involved in the lawsuit.

The utility group’s case is “extremely weak in legal terms,” ​​said Gavin Kearney, a lawyer at Earthjustice, a nonprofit environmental law group. The EPA issued no new regulations in January; instead, it began applying the 2015 rules, he said.

“What we think is really at play here is that they’re basically trying to delay and weaken enforcement of the EPA coal ash rules,” he said.

Kearney also dismissed any claims “that this would lead to some kind of collapse of our electrical system. Industries had plenty of notice and plenty of opportunity to anticipate the rule’s deadlines, he said. “The argument that they can’t find a reasonably quick mechanism to deal with their own waste is an argument that I wouldn’t give much weight to.”

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Coal ash and other combustion waste is what is left after the coal is burned to generate electricity. This is one of the long-term legacies of using coal as a fuel, which also includes contributing to global warming.

Heavy metals in coal ash are associated with cancer and other health problems. Over the past century, hundreds of power plants have produced billions of tons of ash and other combustion wastes, including scrubber sludge.

“Surface impoundments and coal ash dumps must operate and close in a manner that protects public health and the environment,” EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan said during the announces coal ash enforcement action in January. He said the agency would “protect communities and hold facilities accountable.”

The EPA press office declined to comment on the ongoing litigation.

MISO operates the power grid in 15 Upper Midwestern states and the Canadian province of Manitoba, serving 42 million people. PJM operates the network in all or part of 13 states, from Virginia to Illinois, serving 65 million people.

Media representatives for MISO and PJM said they would let their organizations’ filings with the EPA on coal ash enforcement activities speak for themselves.

“MISO has experienced an increasing number of hours during the year when supply is barely sufficient to cover demand, even during off-peak seasons and times of day,” MISO officials wrote. . “These events, which place MISO in near-emergency or emergency conditions, are the result of the changing resource profile, including a significant number of thermal plant withdrawals and the corresponding increase in planned outages and unforeseen.”

Given this situation, MISO wrote, he would be concerned that any loss of generating capacity as a result of EPA action “could exacerbate already dangerously thin demand coverage in some subregions. of the northern and central regions of MISO”.

PJM’s case was more tempered. Its officials asked the EPA to coordinate with PJM on the timing of its enforcement activities, while writing that “PJM anticipates that the EPA, in consultation with PJM, should prepare to offer extensions to the extent necessary to resolve network reliability issues.

Sameer Doshi, another Earthjustice attorney working on coal ash issues, said the EPA has already acknowledged concerns about grid reliability in its regulations and included a way to allow compliance extensions in certain areas. circumstances.

The regulations also provide enough time to investigate reliability issues, he said.

In a recent filing with the EPA, Earthjustice, representing 65 environmental and public interest groups, urged the agency to deny utility requests to extend deadlines for using uncoated coal ash.

“EPA’s actions are critical and long overdue,” Earthjustice wrote, adding that “for a century, utilities have used the cheapest, easiest, and most dangerous disposal method for waste. toxins generated by coal-fired power plants: dispose of them in unlined basins or ‘ponds’ next to plants.

Coal ash pollution is also an environmental justice issue, Earthjustice wrote, because the majority of toxic ash sites are located in low-income or communities of color, “where residents suffer from higher rates of cancer. , asthma and other adverse health effects.

The Southern Environmental Law Center, which has litigated and won coal ash cleanup cases in states including North Carolina and South Carolina, said in January that the EPA was setting a precedent for environmental compliance. national scale.

In its recent coal ash filing with the EPA, the legal center noted that while some coal plants have shut down, many others have stopped using wet impoundments and instead switched to dry storage in landfills with liners to protect groundwater.

“We face a unique question about how this legacy of industrial waste will be stored for decades, a decision that will have a significant impact on adjacent neighborhoods, downstream communities and drinking water for future lives.” “We are writing to express our support and appreciation for the EPA’s compliance with the plain, clear, and simple requirements set forth in the rule,” the legal center wrote.

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