In a disappointment to environmentalists, the US Environmental Protection Agency issued rules on Friday labeling coal ash, a byproduct of coal-based power production containing toxic materials such as arsenic and lead, as non-hazardous waste.
The label means that states and environmental groups taking legal action, and not the EPA, will be the primary enforcers of the first-ever federal rules targeting coal ash, which will require the closure of some coal ash holding ponds leaking contaminants into surrounding water but will not cover others.
Also critical of the new rules were some Republican lawmakers, who said they will prove harmful to the economy. "This rule is a huge step forward in our effort to protect communities from coal ash storage impoundment failures as well as the improper management and disposal of coal ash in general,"EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy told reporters.
The agency first proposed rules governing coal ash storage in 2010, in the wake of a massive spill at a ruptured holding pond in Tennessee that has cost more than $1 billion to clean up. The process took on renewed urgency with another large-scale breach at a pond in North Carolina in February.
Environmental groups expressed disappointment with the long-anticipated rules, which do not require the phase-out of all the hundreds of existing holding ponds and do not prohibit new coal ash from being disposed of in them.
Under the rules, active coal ash holding ponds and landfills will be tested for contamination of surrounding groundwater, with the results made public. If levels of toxins are too high, the ponds will have to be dried out and shuttered.
The rules do not cover disused holding ponds on sites where no active power plant exists, with the EPA saying it lacks authority over them.
It was not immediately clear how many such sites exist.
"Today's rule doesn't prevent more tragic spills like the ones we are still trying to clean up in North Carolina and Tennessee," said Lisa Evans, attorney with Earthjustice, in a statement.
"It won't stop the slower moving disaster that is unfolding for communities around the country, as leaky coal ash ponds and dumps poison water."
The Edison Electric Institute, a power industry group, applauded the EPA for not labeling coal ash hazardous, but expressed worry that it might later reverse course.
Senator Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma and Senator-elect Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, both Republicans, issued a statement critical of the rules and vowed legislative action. "We will work to ensure legislatively that states, municipalities and American consumers have the proper protections from the president's continued attacks on our nation's abundant and affordable energy resources," they said.