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New EPA Standards Label Toxic Coal Ash Non-Hazardous

Smoke rises from the Colstrip Steam Electric Station, a coal burning power plant in in Colstrip, Mont., in September. New EPA guidelines treat toxic coal ash from such plants much the same as common household garbage.

The Environmental Protection Agency has issued new national standards designating coal ash – a nearly ubiquitous byproduct of coal-fired power plants that contains arsenic and lead – as non-hazardous waste.

NPR's Christopher Joyce reports that coal-fired power plants produce more than 130 million tons of the coal ash each year and they have long stored millions of tons of it in giant ponds.

But many of those ponds have failed in recent years, allowing contaminated water to get into rivers and streams, and ultimately into drinking water.

Environmental groups sued the EPA to designate coal as a hazardous waste, which would require strict rules for its care, Christopher says.

But instead, the EPA has decided to treat it more like ordinary household garbage.

According to The Associated Press:

"The Environmental Protection Agency said in a call with reporters Friday that the record did not support a hazardous classification. The agency said the steps they were taking would protect communities from the risks associated with coal ash waste sites and hold the companies operating them accountable.

"'It does what we hoped to accomplish ... in a very aggressive but reasonable and pragmatic way,' said EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy."

Nonetheless, the new EPA rules will set standards for how coal ash ponds are built.

Christopher reports that the EPA will require companies to disclose their coal ash storage plans to the public. The agency says the public can then take legal action if companies don't meet the EPA standards.

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