Tag Archives: Waste Disposal

“Aerosolizing” Landfill Leachate

May 19, 2017.   A bill under consideration by the N.C. General Assembly,   House Bill 576 , requires the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) to allow “aerosolization of leachate and wastewater as an acceptable method of site management” at a lined municipal solid waste landfill and gives DEQ discretion to allow the practice at unlined landfills.  The bill passed the N.C. House and has been sent to the Senate.

A definition of terms.

“Leachate” is the liquid produced by water (including rainfall) percolating through landfilled waste. State rules require landfills to contain leachate onsite or treat the leachate before discharging it.   Treatment may occur onsite; offsite through a municipal wastewater treatment system; or by land-application of leachate to vegetation.  Since leachate would be considered to be wastewater, discharge often requires a Clean Water Act permit.

“Municipal solid waste landfill”  means a landfill — whether operated by a city, a county or a private waste management company — that receives household trash and  other commercial and industrial waste collected for disposal. MSW landfills do not dispose of hazardous waste or medical waste generated by diagnosis, treatment and  research facilities.

“Aerosolization”  involves spraying untreated landfill leachate into the air, allowing solids to resettle and  liquids to evaporate. Land-application systems direct leachate toward the ground for absorption by vegetation;  aerosolization systems direct the leachate high into the air to facilitate evaporation.   In 2016,  Republic Services (a major commercial landfill operator in the state)  made a presentation to the legislature’s Environmental Review Commission describing aerosolization and promoting the systems as a less expensive alternative to both conventional wastewater treatment and land application of leachate.

Scope of the bill. House Bill 576 requires DEQ to allow aerosolization of leachate at lined municipal solid waste landfills and allows DEQ to approve  aerosolization of leachate at unlined landfills.  The bill sets no standards for aerosolization of landfill leachate and does not expressly give either DEQ or the Environmental Management Commission authority to set standards for the practice. The bill also waives water and air quality permitting requirements for the aerosolization system if evaporation  of leachate “results in a zero-liquid discharge and is not a significant air contamination source”.

Questions:

1. Does aerosolization  of untreated landfill leachate from municipal solid waste landfills present a risk of exposure to  viruses and bacteria?    Unlike limited purpose landfills (such as those receiving only construction and demolition debris),  municipal solid waste (“MSW”) landfills receive food waste, diapers, and other personal care products that may carry viruses and bacteria. There does not seem to be readily available  information on  the potential for increased human or wildlife  exposure to viruses and bacteria as leachate becomes aerosolized and potentially wind-borne.

Without more information on the persistence of viruses and bacteria under different conditions, it is difficult to assess the risk of aerosolizing MSW leachate and develop management measures to limit the risk.  An EPA study found that viruses can survive in landfill leachate for weeks or months in moderate temperatures. A Nebraska study found that avian influenza viruses may survive in landfill leachate for up to two years.

North Carolina’s Division of Waste Management has approved four demonstration  projects for aerosolization of  landfill leachate; one involved a small-scale project at a Republic Services landfill.  The process has not been used to scale at a MSW landfill in North Carolina and  I have not found an instance of any other state permitting an evaporation system at a MSW landfill. As a result, data on the potential health risk of  aerosolizing MSW leachate either doesn’t exist or is not readily accessible.

2. Are existing  state rules sufficient to manage risk associated with aerosolization of MSW leachate?  North Carolina’s landfill rules require  a 50-foot buffer between each waste disposal area and the landfill property boundary. Rules that apply to landfills permitted before 2007 require a 50-foot buffer between waste disposal areas and a river or stream.  Landfills permitted since 2007 must maintain a  200-foot buffer between the waste disposal area and a perennial stream or wetland, although DEQ  can approve a narrower buffer (no less than 100 feet) based on local circumstances. See Session Law 2007-550.  A  500-foot buffer must be maintained between the waste disposal area and a home or water supply well.

A 2016  presentation  on leachate management by SCS Engineering noted some considerations in use of evaporation systems including:

♦ Risk of overspray and wind gusts

♦ Worker exposure to aerosolized leachate

North Carolina’s  waste management rules do not address these concerns and the potential risk to landfill workers or to people and wildlife beyond the landfill boundary.  Existing landfill buffer requirements were developed to manage the impact of buried waste and active landfill operations on waters, wetlands and adjoining property owners — not as a safety factor for aerosolization of landfill leachate and possible drift.

State  waste management rules require landfills to comply with air quality standards,  but the cross-referenced standards focus on air pollutants regulated under the Clean Air Act rather than bacteria and viruses. House Bill 576 exempts aerosolization systems from air quality permitting requirements as long as the system would not be a “significant air contamination source”. The bill does not define what would constitute a “significant” air contamination source.

The  knowledge gaps, lack of risk management guidance, and absence of standards for use of evaporation systems at municipal solid waste landfills suggests a need for  more study.

NC Senate: Proposed 2017 Budget

May 10, 2017.  Some highlights of the state budget proposed by Senate leadership as it affects environmental programs:

Money. The Senate budget continues  a nearly 10-year trend of cuts in environmental programs. An earlier post described some of the impacts of previous  budget cuts that began with the  2008 recession (including a 9% reversion of already-budgeted funds in 2009) and continued after the economy began to recover.

The Senate’s proposed budget for 2017 would reduce state appropriations to the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) by nearly $7 million.  That represents a 10% reduction in state appropriations and a 3% reduction in the department’s overall budget (which also includes federal grant funds and permit fees).

The reductions include:

♦ A $3.5 million discretionary cut,  which means DEQ will have to identify  reductions within the department’s operating budget.

♦  A $1 million transfer of funds  to the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (DACS) to challenge an EPA rule defining federal jurisdiction under the Clean Water Act. Under the McCrory administration, DEQ had joined  a number of other states in suing over the federal rule.  The Cooper administration dropped out of the litigation and the Senate provision would fund DACS  to continue the state’s participation in that litigation.

♦ The budget eliminates  56.5 positions from existing DEQ programs:

      32.5 positions in the Division of Environmental Assistance and Customer Service. Those cuts affect non-regulatory waste reduction, recycling,  water/energy efficiency and  permit assistance programs. The cuts would effectively eliminate DEQ programs that work with business/industry to voluntarily reduce waste generation which allows those businesses and industries  to reduce their regulatory burden and save money.

      14 regional office support positions. DEQ’s seven regional offices house frontline permitting and enforcement staff for multiple environmental programs. The legislature has targeted DEQ  regional offices for staff cuts in the past. This provision requires a reduction of an additional 2 positions in each  regional office. It is not clear which DEQ programs would be affected.

      5  administrative positions. The Senate bill  identifies specific jobs for elimination, including  DEQ’s Chief Deputy Secretary,  the Legislative Affairs Program Manager; a communications position; and the last two environment education positions remaining in the department.

      3 positions in the N.C. Geodetic Survey

      1 position in the Land Quality Section of the Division of Energy, Mineral and Land Resources

      1 position in the Division of Marine Fisheries

Policy provisions in the budget bill. The budget bill includes a number of changes in state law or policy related to environmental programs:

♦  Conditions on use of funds the state may receive as a result of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s settlement with Volkswagen for violations of the Clean Air Act (Sec. 13.2 )  The Senate provision sets criteria for use of the funds and requires legislative approval of a DEQ plan for the funds.

♦  A provision  that allows the owners of old landfill sites to avoid environmental cleanup requirements by: 1. Accepting liability for onsite and offsite contamination; and 2. Providing financial assurance for any environmental harm.  There is an exception for property owners who did not receive compensation to accept local government waste for disposal. The provision affects a state program to assess and cleanup contamination associated with landfills and trash dumps that never met standards for solid waste landfills adopted in 1983. (iSec. 13.4).

♦  Changes to laws governing the Marine Fisheries Commission (Sec. 13.17) . The provision reduces the MFC from nine members to seven members and requires a super-majority of five  members to take any action — including adoption of rules. As with most state commissions, current law only requires a simple majority of the MFC to take most actions although a super-majority is required for adoption of fisheries management plans.

♦  A moratorium on wind energy projects (Sec. 24.2). The bill would prevent DEQ from issuing permits for new wind energy projects until December 31. 2020. During the moratorium, the bill would require a study of the impact of wind energy facilities on military operations in the state. Note; the process for approval of wind energy facilities already requires Federal Aviation Administration review and  input from military  installations.

The Ongoing Controversy Over Coal Ash and Well Contamination

August 21, 2016. The controversy over changing state advice to well owners near Duke Energy’s coal ash impoundments has exploded again over conflicting accounts — within the McCrory administration — of the basis for “do not drink” letters sent in 2015 and later withdrawn. Two earlier posts here and here provide background on groundwater and drinking water standards for vanadium and hexavalent chromium (the contaminant of greatest concern).

In 2015, the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) sent health advisory letters to the owners of wells with concentrations of hexavalent chromium (chromium 6 or Cr-6)  above 0.07 ppb.  The 0.07 ppb threshold represented the concentration of Cr-6 associated with an increased cancer risk of 1:1 million. In early 2016, the McCrory administration rescinded most of the letters and advised well owners that water meeting the federal drinking water standard for total chromium  (100 ppb) should be considered safe to drink. The total chromium standard covers both chromium-3 and the more toxic chromium-6.

Within the last two weeks, the conflict between DHHS and the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) over the content of the health advisory letters  again made headlines. This post describes the roles of  DHHS and DEQ in groundwater contamination incidents; explains the criteria for developing groundwater standards; and makes a few observations on the implications of the conflict for future groundwater contamination incidents.

The role of DHHS in groundwater contamination incidents and development of groundwater standards. When contamination affects drinking water wells,  DHHS toxicologists often advise on the potential health effects. If there is no existing drinking water or groundwater standard for the specific contaminant, the toxicologists use established protocols to assess the contaminant’s short-term  and long-term health effects. Acute health effects include organ damage, skin rashes, respiratory problems and other short to intermediate term problems. Long-term health effects often focus on increased cancer risk. DHHS may also work with the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) to develop a health-based groundwater standard for a contaminant that has no existing numeric standard in state or federal rules.  DHHS toxicologists advise rather than regulate. DEQ has responsibility for enforcement of state groundwater standards and oversight for groundwater cleanup.

Cancer risk as a factor in setting groundwater standards and assessing groundwater contamination.  Both state and federal environmental agencies consider increased  cancer risk as a factor in assessing groundwater contamination and setting goals for groundwater cleanup.  North Carolina’s  groundwater rules list a  1:1 million increased cancer risk as a primary criteria for setting groundwater quality standards.  In 15A NCAC 2L.0202(d),  the rules require a state groundwater standard to be based on the lesser  of  the

(1)  Systemic threshold concentration calculated as follows: [Reference Dose (mg/kg/day) x 70 kg (adult body weight) x Relative Source Contribution (.10 for inorganics; .20 for organics)] / [2 liters/day (avg. water consumption)];

(2)  Concentration which corresponds to an incremental lifetime cancer risk of 1×10-6;

(3)  Taste threshold limit value;

(4)  Odor threshold limit value;

(5)  Maximum contaminant level[the federal drinking water standard]; or

(6)  National secondary drinking water standard.

Based on recent public statements by DHHS scientists, DHHS and DEQ staff in the Division of Waste Management calculated increased cancer risk associated with Cr-6 exposure using a standard protocol. The two agencies concluded that  0.07 ppb represented the break-point for the 1:1 million increased cancer risk.  The  DEQ/DHHS calculation of increased cancer risk associated with > 0.07 ppb of  Cr-6  then became the basis for  “do not drink” letters sent to well owners in 2015.

Health advisories based on groundwater contamination. DHHS has long worked with DEQ staff  to  advise well owners on health risks associated with groundwater contamination. Both DHHS and DEQ report to the Governor, creating  a strong incentive for the agencies to agree on assessment of public health risk.  Environmental and public health experts may debate  the appropriate standard for a contaminant,  but  public conflict between the two agencies is  extremely unusual and may be unprecedented.

The split between DHHS and DEQ over advice to well owners.  According to DHHS scientists, the 0.07 ppb standard for CR-6 based on increased cancer risk reflected the consensus of DHHS public health experts and staff in DEQ’s Division of Waste Management.  DEQ leaders, however, encouraged DHHS to advise well owners that water exceeding the 0.07 standard should still be considered safe to drink as long as Cr-6 levels did not exceed the federal drinking water standard of 100 ppb.  DEQ publicly raised  concerns about the DHHS health advisories  in a January 2016 presentation to a legislative committee. The presentation compared the 0.07 ppb standard  to the federal drinking water standard and to standards adopted by other states.  Within a month after the legislative presentation,  DEQ and DHHS sent new letters advising well owners that well water with Cr-6 levels below 100 ppb should be considered safe to drink because the water meets federal drinking water standards.  Recent  statements by state toxicologist Ken Rudo and state epidemiologist Megan Davies (who has resigned over the issue) make it clear that DHHS public health experts did not believe the existing state and federal standards for total chromium sufficiently protected human health and objected to the revised letters.  The 100 ppb standard for total chromium represents an increased cancer risk orders of magnitude higher than the 0.07 ppb standard — 1:700 increased risk of cancer versus  1:1 million increased risk.

Some observations:

♦   The state’s groundwater standard remains 10 ppb for total chromium and the Coal Ash Management Act of 2014 directs DEQ to use state groundwater standards in assessing drinking water wells around coal ash impoundments.  DEQ  has not  proposed a specific state groundwater standard for Cr-6 based on the DEQ/DHHS cancer risk calculation. As a result, the 0.07 ppb standard remains a health advisory rather than an enforceable groundwater standard. The federal drinking water standard of 100 ppb does not apply to either groundwater assessment or evaluation of well safety near coal ash impoundments.

♦  According to Secretary Donald van der Vaart, DEQ does not question the DHHS calculation of increased cancer risk associated with Cr-6.   Given the gap between the total chromium standard of 10 ppb and the 0.07 ppb threshold for a 1:1 million increased cancer risk associated with chromium-6,  the  total chromium standard does not meet a basic criteria for a N.C. groundwater standards — which requires a groundwater standard to be based on the 1:1 million increased cancer risk —  and should be reviewed.

♦ State and federal agencies routinely use the  1:1 million increased cancer risk as a criteria  for developing health-based standards for permitting  and to set environmental remediation goals.  Both state and federal programs also recognize that there may be a need to move off the 1:1million cancer risk criteria in individual cases because it is not technically or economically feasible to meet the standard.  In those instances, the agency can adjust a groundwater cleanup goal  (for example) to reflect the limits of available technology.

Going forward.  As a practical matter, the difference between the DHHS health-based standard and the state groundwater standard has no direct enforcement consequences for Duke Energy. For the time being, the applicable state groundwater standard continues to be the total chromium standard of 10 ppb.  Under 2016 amendments to Coal Ash Management Act,  Duke Energy must  provide a permanent alternative water supply to all well owners within 1/2 miles of a coal ash pond which makes both the  cancer risk  threshold and the state groundwater standard irrelevant to decisions about alternative water supply.

Assuming no change in the state groundwater standard, the 10 ppb total chromium standard will also drive development and approval of  groundwater remediation plans for areas surrounding the coal ash impoundments.

The cancer risk threshold for Cr-6  does raise questions about the adequacy of the state’s  total chromium standard.  The DHHS calculation of cancer risk suggests the  existing total chromium does not meet one of the basic criteria for state groundwater standards — protection against a 1:1 million increase in cancer risk.

The public conflict between DEQ and DHHS raises two other questions —

Should  state environmental and public health agencies inform citizens  of the health risk  associated with contamination that meets existing regulatory standards? DHHS public health officials felt an obligation to inform well owners of the higher cancer risk potentially associated with elevated levels of CR-6; DEQ took the position that the warnings were unnecessarily alarming if the well water met federal drinking water standards.

The other question is more technical and would inevitably come up in any reevaluation of the groundwater standard for chromium: Is there any economic or technical reason not to use the more stringent 0.07 ppb standard as the basis for assessing risk of human exposure to Cr-6 in groundwater and setting groundwater remediation goals?  The choice of a standard has implications  beyond the immediate controversy over coal ash impoundments and so far there has not been a practical critique of the 0.07 ppb threshold based on technology or cost.  The reason behind DEQ’s objection to the DHHS 0.07 ppb threshold as a basis for health advisories still isn’t entirely clear since it appears most  public water systems  in the state meet the DHHS health-based standard. Those that don’t meet the 0.07 ppb standard come much closer than a number of the wells  DEQ argued should be considered safe because the water meets the federal drinking water standard of 100 ppb.

A Senate Proposal on Coal Ash and Commissions

June 29, 2016. The N.C. Senate quickly brought to committee and then to the floor a new bill attempting  to resolve the separation of powers conflict over  appointments to the Coal Ash Management Commission, the Mining Commission and the Oil and Gas Commission.  (The Governor had vetoed an earlier bill to address the separation of powers issue; see this post for background on the previous bill and the Governor’s objections.)

The new bill, a  repurposed  House Bill 630 , represents a compromise between the Governor’s Office,  the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), and Senate leaders. House leaders did not participate in the negotiation and will have to vote to accept the changes for H 630 to  become law. A summary of H 630 as it passed the Senate below:

The Commissions. The bill eliminates the Coal Ash Management Commission, leaving implementation of the Coal Ash Management Act entirely to DEQ.  The Mining Commission and the Oil and Gas Commission remain,  but those laws have been amended to  give the Governor power to appoint a majority of the commission members subject to confirmation by the legislature. The bill also slightly modifies the Governor’s power to remove a commission member, adding “for good cause” to existing provisions that  allow the Governor to remove a member for misfeasance, malfeasance or nonfeasance.  (It isn’t clear how much “for good cause”  adds to the Governor’s removal power.)

The bill previously vetoed by the Governor had amended the appointment provisions for all three commissions and clarified the Governor’s power to remove commission members. In vetoing that bill, the Governor’s Office argued that commissions operating outside the Governor’s full  direction and control cannot constitutionally make executive decisions. The Governor’s Office also rejected the idea of legislative confirmation of appointees as another violation of separation of powers.  Agreement to H 630 suggests the Governor’s Office has softened on those positions, but the price of the agreement may have been elimination of the Coal Ash Management Commission.

Implementation of the Coal Ash Management Act.  H 630 also makes significant changes to the 2014 Coal Ash Management Act (CAMA).

♦  H 630 requires  Duke Energy to provide a permanent alternative water supply to well owners within 1/2 mile of the compliance boundary around a coal ash impoundment and to well owners in areas where groundwater contamination associated with the impoundment is expected to migrate based on hydrogeologic studies.

♦  By eliminating the Coal Ash Management Commission, the bill gives DEQ complete control over the risk classification of impoundments and approval of final closure plans.

♦  The process for assigning final risk classifications to each impoundment has changed significantly:

— The bill eliminates the list of specific risk classification criteria in the 2014 law, leaving only general language on consideration of  “risks to public health, safety, and welfare; the environment; and natural resources”.

—  The number of impoundment sites with predetermined risk classifications has expanded from the four sites designated as High Risk in the 2014 Coal Ash Management Act to include an additional 3 sites designated by H 630  as Intermediate Risk. Impoundments classified as High Risk or Intermediate Risk under CAMA must be excavated and the coal ash removed for disposal in a lined landfill or beneficial reuse. Citizen’s suits over coal ash at the three sites designated as Intermediate Risk had ended in settlement agreements requiring excavation and removal of the coal ash in those impoundments.

—  H 630 allows every other impoundment site  (seven total) to be classified as Low Risk as long as Duke Energy: 1.   provides a permanent alternative water supply to potentially affected well owners as required under the bill;  and 2. resolves all  structural dam safety issues.  Under CAMA, Low Risk sites can potentially be closed by dewatering and capping the ash in place instead of removing the ash for disposal or reuse. For those  seven sites, a final classification decision can remain open until Nov. 30 2018 (or Nov. 30 2019 if DEQ grants an extension) to allow  Duke Energy time to complete alternative water supply projects and dam safety improvements. Impoundments that fail to meet the Low Risk criteria by those dates would automatically be classified as  Intermediate Risk.

Having reduced the criteria for Low Risk classification to just the two, the bill provides no opportunity  for additional public input before DEQ finalizes those impoundment classifications.

♦ The bill gives DEQ more power over final closure plans. In addition to removing oversight by the Coal Ash Management Commission, the bill allows DEQ to determine the final closure plan rather than simply approving or disapproving a plan proposed by Duke Energy.  Theoretically, DEQ could reject a Duke Energy proposal to excavate an impoundment rather than cap the coal ash in place. The bill doesn’t provide criteria for DEQ to apply in making final closure decisions.  (The 2014 CAMA had directed the Coal Ash Management Commission to consider economic and technical feasibility; protection of public health, safety,  welfare, the environment and natural resources; and potential impact on cost to ratepayers.)

♦  H 630 keeps existing CAMA language  prohibiting  approval of a cap in place closure plan unless the plan will “prevent…post-closure exceedances of groundwater quality standards beyond the compliance boundary”, but adds an alternative closure standard that may be less protective of groundwater.

Under the new alternative,  DEQ could  also approve a cap in place closure plan under standards in federal coal ash disposal rules.  Unlike  CAMA, the federal rule does not explicitly bar use of capping in place if the capped coal ash would be a continuing source of groundwater contamination, saying only that the closure plan must:

Control, minimize or eliminate, to the maximum extent feasible, post-closure infiltration of liquids into the waste and releases of CCR, leachate, or contaminated run-off to the ground or surface waters or to the atmosphere…

[40 CFR 257.100(b). This rule applies to closure of inactive coal ash impoundments, but similar language appears in closure standards for active impoundments.]

The standard in the federal rule does not clearly require a cap in place closure plan to prevent  post-closure groundwater standard violations. Allowing use of the federal closure standard could be interpreted to give DEQ discretion to authorize capping in place as long as leaching of contaminants to groundwater will be “minimized”  — a lesser requirement than preventing post-closure groundwater contamination beyond the compliance boundary.  The challenge will be how to square application of the federal closure standard with groundwater corrective action requirements in other sections of the Coal Ash Management Act.

♦ A new section on coal ash reuse  requires Duke Energy to identify three coal ash sites that would each be  capable of processing 300,000 tons of ash for cement products — two sites to be identified in January 2017 and a third by July 2017.  The bill directs Duke Energy  to begin work on contracts/permit applications  as soon as possible after identifying the sites and to begin operation within 24 months after receiving permits.

The Senate version of H 630 has now gone back to the House for a concurrence vote.

To Drink or Not to Drink: A Change in Advice for Well Owners


March 17, 2016. In 2015,  the N.C. Division of Public Health (Department of Health and Human Services) sent letters advising the owners of  369  wells located near coal ash ponds not to drink their well water because of elevated levels of vanadium and chromium-6.  Last week, the Division of Public Health sent letters to those same well owners to withdraw the “do not drink” advisory.  Some questions and answers on the conflicting advice below.

What are vanadium and chromium-6 (Cr-6)? Both elements occur naturally in the environment and can be found in coal ash. Both may  be concentrated in the air or in groundwater as a result of industrial activities.  Inhalation of Cr-6 (or hexavalent chromium) has been associated with increased risk of lung cancer. In 2010,  the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency  began a new health study to determine whether ingestion of  Cr-6  in drinking water increases other types of cancer risk. The Erin Brokovitch story of hexavalent chromium contamination in the town of Hinkley, California raised public awareness of Cr-6 as a public health issue. In Hinkley, Pacific Gas & Electric  had used Cr-6 as an additive in cooling water for a natural gas compression station. The  Cr-6 percolated into groundwater from unlined ponds used to store the cooling water, contaminating the town’s drinking water supply. (Levels of Cr-6 in  Hinkley’s groundwater were exponentially higher than concentrations found  in North Carolina  wells.)

Are there drinking water standards for vanadium and  Cr-6? There is no federal drinking water standard for vanadium.   The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has adopted a drinking water standard for total chromium of 100 parts per billion (ppb);  the standard covers combined concentrations of chromium-3 (a nutritional element found in plant material) and chromium-6.  Water systems required to meet federal Safe Drinking Water Act standards monitor  total chromium levels, but not necessarily  Cr-6. Nationally, only the State of California  has adopted a specific drinking water standard for Cr-6. In 2014, after  years of  study prompted by the Hinkley contamination,  California adopted a standard of 10 parts per billion for Cr-6 in drinking water — 1/10th the concentration allowed under the federal drinking water standard for total chromium.

How are  N.C. groundwater standards different from  federal drinking water standards?  In part,  the two sets of standards serve different purposes. Drinking water standards adopted by U.S. EPA under the Safe Drinking Water Act only apply to the treated water that public water systems  provide to their customers.  Under the law, “public water system” means any system providing water to 15 or  more connections or to 25 or more people whether the system is  operated by a local government or a for-profit water utility.  Federal drinking water standards do not apply to privately owned water supply wells serving individual homes or businesses.

N.C.’s  groundwater standards are used to identify unsafe levels of groundwater contamination;  set goals for groundwater remediation; and advise well owners on use of water from affected wells.  Most N.C. groundwater standards track the federal drinking water standard for the same contaminant, but in a few cases the state has adopted a more stringent groundwater standard or has adopted a groundwater standard for a contaminant that has no corresponding drinking water standard.  Leading up to the well testing around coal ash ponds, N.C. had no groundwater standard for vanadium and no specific standard for Cr-6. although the state had a groundwater standard of 10 ppb for total chromium (more stringent that the 100 ppb drinking water standard for total chromium.)

How does N.C. set groundwater standards?  The N.C. Environmental Management Commission has adopted state groundwater standards as rules. Since existing groundwater standards may not address every potential contaminant,  the rules also create a process for developing  a temporary  standard  — an Interim Maximum Allowable Concentration or “IMAC” —  to address an unregulated contaminant.  Epidemiologists in the N.C. Division of Public Health generally develop a recommended IMAC based on review of human health effects such as toxicity and increased cancer risk.

Why did the  Division of Public Health send “do not drink” letters in 2015 based on  vanadium and chromium-6?   Since no state groundwater standard or federal drinking water standards existed for vanadium and  Cr-6, DEQ  asked the Division of Public Health to develop interim groundwater standards (the IMACs described above)  to be used in assessing wells around the coal ash ponds. Division of Public Health calculated a standard of 0.07 ppb for Cr-6 and 0.3 ppb for vanadium.  In each case, the deciding factor was the concentration associated with an  incremental increase in cancer risk. The table below shows the IMAC standard compared to the federal Safe Drinking Water Act standard and the N.C. groundwater standard.

Contaminant Fed. Drinking Water Standard N.C. Groundwater Standard IMAC
Vandadium No standard No standard 0.3 ppb
C.hromium-6 None –Total Cr 100 ppb None – Total Cr 10 ppb 0.07 ppb

Why did Division of Public Health withdraw the “do not drink” letters?  None of the  well owners who received “do not drink” letters  based solely on the vanadium and Cr-6 IMAC standards have well water that would violate Safe Drinking Water Act standards for a public water system.  DEQ has reported that 70% of public water systems in the U.S. exceed the IMAC standards set by Division of Public Health, including several large public water systems in North Carolina. (The information, provided in a report to the legislature’s Environmental Review Commission,  did not indicate how many of those systems exceeded the IMAC standard for vanadium versus Cr-6. You can find the entire DEQ presentation to the Commission  here.)

The gap between the IMAC standards and Safe Drinking Water Act standards meant that well  owners were being advised not to drink water that meets current drinking water standards and could lawfully be provided to customers of a  public water system.   As a practical matter, that also  means the well owners may not have access to an alternative water supply of any better quality  since  the nearest public water system also may not meet the IMAC standards.

None of this  means the analysis done by the Division of Public Health in developing the IMACs was wrong. Environmental and public health standards change with additional knowledge; the fact that the U.S. Environmental Protection has undertaken a new health study of Cr-6 in particular suggests some question about the adequacy of the  federal drinking water standard based solely on total chromium.  The standards adopted by EPA and the states also sometimes involve compromise between the most protective health-based standard and the practicalities (and cost) of meeting that standard.

N.C. Environmental Legislation 2015: The Budget

October 9, 2015. Now that the General Assembly has adjourned, a look at legislative actions affecting the environment. First, the state budget for 2015-2017.

Among the most significant impacts:

♦  REORGANIZATION.   The Clean Water Management Trust Fund and the Natural Heritage Program — originally intended to protect and restore water quality and identify important natural areas — have been separated from the environmental protection programs in the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR). The budget transfers the CWMTF, Natural Heritage Program, Museum of Natural Sciences, state park system, N.C. Aquariums and N.C. Zoo from DENR to a newly organized Department of Natural and Cultural Resources. The move combines conservation  and ecological education programs with state historic sites and cultural resources. The new department appears to be organized around management of the programs as public attractions rather than as research and education partners to state environmental protection programs.  As a result of the reorganization, DENR becomes the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ).

Whatever the merits of the move for facilities like the Museum of Natural Science and N.C. Zoo,  the Clean Water Management Trust Fund and Natural Heritage Program do not  fit the new department’s basic organizing principle. Unlike the “attractions”,  the  CWMTF and Natural Heritage Program provide no public facilities and exist primarily to protect  water quality and identify important natural resources.

The General Assembly created the Clean Water Management Trust Fund (CWMTF) in 1996 to fund projects to prevent water pollution and to restore water bodies already impaired  by pollution.   CWMTF’s  non-regulatory approach complemented water quality rules  protecting state waters.  Originally,   CWMTF grants funded acquisition of riparian buffers to reduce polluted runoff into streams and rivers and  extension of sewer lines where failing  septic  systems threatened surface water quality.  In moving CWMTF, the 2015 budget severs its connection with other state efforts to restore and protect water quality.  The move follows 2014  legislation diluting the original CWMTF  focus on  water quality protection by authorizing use of the Trust Fund for acquisition of historic sites and buffers around military bases.

The  Natural Heritage Program researches, classifies and inventories the state’s natural resources, including endangered and rare plant and animal species. Information collected by the program can be used to document the conservation value of property and to assess the environmental impacts of projects requiring state and federal environmental permits.  The program has a much closer working relationship to the environmental  protection programs that remain in DENR than to public attractions like the N.C.  Zoo and Aquariums. (Note: The 2013 state budget eliminated the Natural Heritage Trust Fund which had been a source of funding for conservation of important natural areas;   the CWMTF  has become the funding source for those projects as well.)

♦  LANDFILL PERMITTING. The budget changes landfill permitting, allowing issuance of a single “life of site” permit to cover construction and operation of a landfill that may have a 30-year lifespan.  State rules had previously  required review and approval of the entire landfill site before construction, but also required each 5 or 10-year phase of the landfill to have a construction and operation permit.  Moving to a “life of site” permit  reduces the number of permit reviews for each landfill operation, changing the permit fee schedule and cutting funding for the state’s solid waste management program by 20%.  The change also reduces state oversight of landfill operations.  Landfill construction will continue to be done in phases for economic and practical reasons,  but the “life of site permit” eliminates state compliance review for each new  phase of the landfill.   The change also seems to eliminate the possibility of imposing additional permit conditions for construction or operation of later landfill phases in response to  technological developments  or new knowledge  of  risks to groundwater and other natural resources. The  budget provision does not set minimum inspection requirements in place of the 5 and 10-year phased permit reviews.

The bill also creates a legislative study of local government authority over solid waste collection and disposal, including ordinances on solid waste collection;  fees for waste management services; and potential for privatization.  The study suggests the General Assembly may focus next on reducing local solid waste regulation.  That will be a somewhat different discussion, since solid waste disposal has long been a local government responsibility so  local fees and ordinances have a direct connection to city/county collection and disposal services.

 LEAKING PETROLEUM UNDERGROUND STORAGE TANKSThe budget eliminates a state fund for cleanup of petroleum contamination from small  petroleum underground storage tanks (USTs) such as home heating oil tanks.   The Noncommercial UST Trust Fund has assisted property owners with the cost of soil and groundwater remediation caused by leaks from farm, home and small commercial USTs.  The budget allocates additional money to the Noncommercial UST Trust Fund to cover pending claims, but  limits use of the Fund to  cleanup costs associated with leaks reported to DENR by October 1, 2015.  All claims for reimbursement of those costs must be filed by July 1, 2016.

The budget provision also prohibits DENR from requiring removal of petroleum-contaminated soils at noncommercial UST sites that have been classified as low risk.  The  problem —  risk classifications  have been based on groundwater impacts;  a low-risk classification does not mean that contaminated soils on the property pose no health hazard. Current UST  rules require remediation of contaminated soils to levels safe for the intended land use (residential versus nonresidential) without regard to the overall risk classification of the site.  Soil remediation standards have been based on the potential health risks associated with exposure to petroleum-contaminated soil. Adverse health effects may include increased cancer risk since petroleum products contain a number of carcinogens. The budget provision may allow petroleum-contaminated soils to remain on residential properties at levels putting children at particular risk of adverse health effects.

♦ JORDAN LAKE WATER QUALITY RULES. The budget allocates another $1.5 million (from the Clean Water Management Trust Fund) to continue the 2013 pilot project to test use of aerators to improve water quality in the Jordan Lake system. The budget also has a special provision further delaying implementation of the Jordan Lake water quality rules for  another 3 years or one year beyond completion of the pilot project (whichever is later). The rules had been developed by the state’s Environmental Management Commission to address poor water quality  caused by  excess nutrients reaching the lake in wastewater discharges or in  runoff from agricultural lands and developed areas. See an earlier post  here on the  2013 legislation creating the pilot project.

♦ COASTAL EROSION CONTROL.   A special provision in the budget also changes state rules on use of sandbag seawalls and terminal groins in response to coastal erosion.  State coastal management rules have only allowed use of  temporary sandbag seawalls to protect a building facing an imminent threat from erosion. The same rules prohibit construction of the seawall more than 20 feet seaward of the threatened building. (These sandbag seawalls are substantial structures built on the beach in response to oceanfront erosion; the rules do not apply to sandbags used to prevent water from entering a building during a flood event.) The budget bill allows an oceanfront property owner to install a sandbag seawall to align with an existing sandbag structure on adjacent property without showing an imminent erosion threat to any building on their own property.  Since the bill allows construction to align with the adjacent sandbag seawall, the new seawall  may  also be more than 20 feet seaward of any  building. The irony here — a property owner may want to install a sandbag seawall in these circumstances  out of concern that the adjacent sandbag seawall may itself cause increased shoreline erosion.

The budget bill also increases the number of terminal groin structures that can be permitted at the state’s ocean inlets from four to six and identifies New River Inlet for location of two of the additional structures. See an earlier post  for more on earlier legislation allowing construction of terminal groins as a pilot project. Note: No terminal groins have been completed under the original pilot program, so the state does not yet have any data on the actual impacts of these structures.

♦ RENEWABLE ENERGY TAX CREDIT.  The budget bill allows the state’s 35% tax credit for renewable energy projects to sunset on December 31, 2015. A separate bill provides a “safe harbor” for renewable energy projects already substantially underway by that date. Those projects may qualify for a one-year extension of the tax credit. See Senate Bill 372 for more on conditions that apply to the safe harbor extension.

The NC Senate: Budget 2015

June 18, 2015.  Yesterday, the  N.C. Senate  took a first vote to approve a Senate version of House Bill 97  ( 2015 Appropriations Act).   The Senate received H 97 from the House of Representatives on May 22. The Senate  released its  alternative draft of the appropriations bill three days ago and quickly moved H 97  through Senate appropriations committees.  The Senate takes  a very different approach to funding state government than the House, but the Senate version of H 97 also contains many more “special provisions” — changes to existing law that go beyond finance and appropriations.  Some of the more significant environmental provisions in the Senate budget bill  (not by any means a complete list) below.

First, the Senate revisits the organization of state natural resource programs.  Sec. 14.30 of the Senate bill would combine  DENR’s natural resource programs (Division of Parks and Recreation, State Parks, Aquariums, the N.C. Zoo and the Museum of Natural Sciences) with cultural resource programs (such as the Museum of History and state historic sites)  in a new Department of Natural and Cultural Resources.  DENR would become the Department of Environmental Quality. Sec. 14.31  requires the two departments to study  whether  the Albemarle-Pamlico National Estuary Program,  state Coastal Reserves, the Office of Land and Water Stewardship,  the Office of Environmental Education and Public Affairs, the Division of Marine Fisheries and the Wildlife Resources Commission should also be moved to the new Department of Natural and Cultural Resources.

Other changes proposed in the Senate bill by subject (parenthetical descriptions are mine) :

COAL ASH

Sec. 29.18 (Beneficial use of coal ash) requires the Utilities Commission to report to several legislative committees by January 2016 on “the incremental cost incentives related to coal combustion residuals surface impoundment for investor-owned public utilities” including:

(1) Utilities Commission policy on  incremental cost recovery.

(2) The impact of the current policy on incremental cost recovery on utility customers’ rates.

(3) Possible changes to the current policy on incremental cost  recovery  that would promote reprocessing and other technologies that allow the reuse of coal combustion residuals stored in surface impoundments for concrete and other beneficial end uses.

Although a bit opaque, the Senate seems interested in the possibility of allowing electric utilities  to recover (through charges to consumers) the costs associated with making coal ash in surface impoundments available  for beneficial use.  Duke Energy has previously told legislators  that much of the coal ash in North Carolina impoundments  would require additional processing to be usable in concrete manufacturing.

COASTAL ISSUES

Sec. 14.6 (Use of sandbags for temporary erosion control) amends standards installation of sandbags for  erosion control on ocean and inlet shorelines. State rules now allow installation of sandbags only in response to erosion that imminently threatens a structure. The Senate bill allows a property owner to install sandbags to align with existing sandbag structures  on adjacent properties without showing an imminent erosion threat on their own property.

Sec. 14.10I (Strategies to address beach erosion) requires the Division of Coastal Management to study and develop a strategy “preventing, mitigating and remediating the effects of beach erosion”.

ENERGY 

Sec 14.29  (Federal energy grants) prohibits DENR from applying for grants from two federal programs – the State Energy Program Competitive Grant Program and the Clean Energy and Manufacturing Grant Program.

FISHERIES

Sec. 14.8, Sec. 14.10A and Sec. 14.10C  (measures to increase shellfish restoration and cultivation)

Sec. 14.8  directs the Division of Marine Fisheries to work with commercial fishermen,  aquaculture operations, and federal agencies to open additional areas in Core Sound to shellfish cultivation leasing.

Sec. 14.10A  directs DMF and the Division of Coastal Management to cooperate in  development of a new, expedited  CAMA permitting process for oyster restoration projects. The provision  also  authorizes DMF to  issue scientific and educational activity permits to nonprofit conservation organizations engaged in oyster restoration.

Sec. 14.10C Amends G.S. 113-202 to allow a lease for use of the water bottom to also cover fish cultivation or harvest devices on or within 18″ of the bottom. (Devices or structures not resting on the bottom or extending more than 18″ above the bottom will continue to require a water column lease.)

Sec. 14.10F (Joint fisheries enforcement authority) repeals the Division of Marine Fisheries authority to enter into a joint enforcement agreement with the National Marine Fisheries Service. The joint agreement allows DMF  to receive federal funding to enforce federal fisheries regulations in state waters.

SPECIAL FUNDS

Sec. 14.16  continues a recent trend of eliminating “special funds” that hold fees or other revenue dedicated for a specific purpose outside the state budget’s General Fund. The Senate bill eliminates special funds for mining fees,  stormwater permit fees, and UST soil permitting fees and moves the fee revenue into the General Fund.

STREAM AND WETLAND MITIGATION

Sec. 14.23 (Limiting the state’s role in providing stream, wetland, riparian buffer and nutrient mitigation)  requires DENR’s Division of Mitigation Services to stop accepting fees in lieu of mitigation in the Neuse, Tar-Pamlico and Cape Fear River basins within 30 months.  The provision then allows DENR (with the Environmental Management Commission’s agreement) to also eliminate the state in-lieu fee programs in all other river basins after June 30, 2018.

DENR’s  in-lieu fee program allows a developer to pay  a fee for mitigation  required as a condition of state and federal development permits. DENR  then contracts with private mitigation providers for the necessary mitigation. Payment of the fee transfers responsibility for providing the mitigation from the developer to DENR. Under a Memorandum of Agreement with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the state’s in-lieu fee program can be used to satisfy stream and wetland mitigation required as a condition of federal Clean Water Act permits.

Eliminating  the State in-lieu fee program seems to eliminate the fee-for-mitigation approach as an option for developers. The burden would be back on the developer to find acceptable mitigation through a private mitigation bank or to plan and manage an individual mitigation project.  The change may slow some development projects that can now move  ahead based on the Corps of Engineers’ agreement to accept payments to the state in-lieu fee program as satisfying  federal mitigation requirements.

UNDERGROUND STORAGE TANKS

Sec. 14.16A (Elimination of the Noncommercial UST Trust Fund) phases out the state’s Noncommercial UST Trust Fund which reimburses property owners for the cost of cleaning up contamination from leaking underground petroleum storage tanks. The Noncommercial UST Trust Fund has  benefitted homeowners with soil and groundwater  contamination caused by home heating oil tanks and property owners  with contamination caused by USTs  used to store fuel for personal use — as on a farm. Under the Senate provision, the Noncommercial Fund could only be used for leaks reported before August 1, 2015 and claims for reimbursement filed by July 1, 2016. The Noncommercial Fund  would be eliminated for any petroleum releases  reported or claims made after those dates.

WASTE MANAGEMENT

Sec. 14.20 (Life of site landfill permits) amends G.S. 130A-294 to replace the current  5 or 10 year landfill permits with a “life of site” permit to cover landfill operations from opening to final closure. The provision would require permit review every five years.

Sec. 14.21 (Study of local government authority over waste collection and disposal services) directs the legislature’s Environmental Review Commission to study local authority over solid waste management including local fees; ordinances on waste collection and processing; cost to local government to provide solid waste services; and efficiencies or cost reductions that might be realized through privatization.   Solid waste collection and disposal services are entirely financed and provided by local governments;  many already contract with private entities for waste collection or landfill management.  It isn’t clear what the study might lead to since the legislature doesn’t have a role in  providing or financing local waste management services.

Sec. 14.22  (Privatizing landfill remediation) directs DENR to privatize the assessment and remediation of at least 10 high priority pre-1983 landfill sites. For several years, DENR has received a percentage of the state’s solid waste disposal tax  to fund assessment and cleanup of  contamination associated with landfills and dumps that closed rather than meet environmental standards that went into effect in 1983. Some legislators have expressed concern about the slow pace of remediation (and the resulting high fund balance). Note: Most state-funded remediation programs have a slow ramp-up in spending since it takes time to set up a new program and assess the sites.

WATER QUALITY

Sec. 4.5  (Nutrient management) earmarks $4.5 million from the Clean Water Management Trust Fund for a  DENR study of “in situ strategies beyond traditional watershed controls” to mitigate water quality impairment. The provision specifically mentions impairment by “aquatic flora, sediment and nutrients”, suggesting the study may be a continuation of the legislature’s effort to replace watershed-based nutrient management programs with technological solutions.

In 2013, the General Assembly suspended implementation of watershed-based nutrient management rules in the Jordan Lake watershed and funded a pilot project to test the use of aerators to reduce the impacts of excess nutrients on water quality. Sec. 14.5 allows extension of  the  pilot project contracts for another two years and delays implementation of the Jordan Lake watershed rules an additional two years or one year beyond completion of the pilot project, whichever is later.

Sec. 14.25 (State Assumption of permitting under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act) directs DENR to  hire a consultant to plan and prepare a state application  to assume the  federal permitting program under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act.   Sec. 404 requires a permit to fill waters or wetlands that fall under Clean Water Act jurisdiction. The U.S. Corps of Engineers issues Sec. 404 permits,  but a state can assume Sec. 404  permitting authority under certain conditions.  The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency oversees  404 permitting and would have to approve a state program. In a state that assumes Sec. 404 permitting, EPA retains authority to review  permit applications; a permit cannot be issued over an EPA objection.

Although several states have explored the possibility of assuming Sec. 404 permitting authority, only Michigan and  New Jersey have approved Sec. 404 programs. Individual states have reached different conclusions about the costs and benefits for a number of reasons. One may be cost — there are no federal grant funds to support a state 404 permitting program.   The Clean Water Act also prohibits state assumption of permitting in  tidal waters; water bodies used for interstate and foreign commerce;  and wetlands adjacent to both categories of waters. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would continue to have permitting authority in those waters and wetlands.

Sec. 14.26 (Transfer Sedimentation Act implementation to the EMC) eliminates the Sedimentation Pollution Control Commission and transfers responsibility for implementation of the Sedimentation Act to the Environmental Management Commission.

Once the Senate takes a final vote on House Bill 97, the bill goes to a conference committee to resolve the (considerable) differences between Senate and  House versions of the bill.  Few of the environmental provisions described above appear in the House version of the bill — although that doesn’t necessarily mean all of the Senate additions will be opposed by the House in conference negotiations.

EPA’s Coal Ash Rule Part II: North Carolina

January 8, 2015.   The  previous post  described the basics of the federal coal ash rule. An earlier post provided an overview of the N.C. Coal Ash Management Act of 2014. The next question:  How will the two work together? Although the EPA rule does not require states to adopt and enforce the minimum federal standards, many states (like North Carolina) already regulate coal ash disposal and a direct conflict with federal rules would be problematic.

Based on  a quick review,   N.C. landfill  standards seem to match up fairly well to the federal standards  for coal ash landfills.  A  few  — such as separation from groundwater (4 ft. under state rules versus 5 ft. under the federal rule) — will need to be amended to meet minimum federal requirements.  N.C. law mandates an end to disposal of coal ash in surface impoundments, so N.C. has no standards for construction of new impoundments comparable to those in the EPA rule. But since states can be  more restrictive,  the federal rule  will not require  a change in state policy on use of surface impoundments for coal ash disposal.  The federal rule will overlap with state law in a few areas related to existing coal ash impoundments, including requirements for inspection and record-keeping; structural integrity standards;  closure;  and post-closure care.

A  detailed side-by-side comparison of state and federal requirements will be needed to identify all of the state standards that may require amendment to be consistent with minimum federal standards. This post will focus on two aspects of the federal rule that could have a significant impact on implementation of the North Carolina law — provisions on beneficial use of coal ash  and  timelines for closure of existing impoundments. This analysis is based on the prepublication version of the rule.   If EPA makes  wording changes before publication of the final rule in the Federal Register to correct errors or clarify ambiguous language,  those editorial changes may affect interpretation of the rule.

BENEFICIAL USE. The N.C. Coal Ash Management Act of 2014  (Session Law 2014-122) allows  use of coal ash in structural fill, including reclamation of  surface mines. The law also sets strict standards for large structural fill projects (defined as those using more than 8,000 tons per acre or more than 80,000 tons total of unencapsulated coal ash). The N.C. law  put a one year moratorium on approval of smaller  structural fills to study the adequacy of existing rules for those projects.

The EPA rule  seems to disfavor structural fill projects, defining “beneficial use” to exclude  structural fill/landscape projects using 12,400 tons or more of unencapsulated coal ash unless: 1. the project involves no more risk of release to the environment than use of  conventional  material;  or 2. releases to the environment will meet all environmental and public health benchmarks. The rule makes an exception  for highway projects, deferring to  the Federal Highway Administration’s technical standards for use of coal ash in road projects.  Setting  coal mining to the side (to be regulated under a different law), the EPA rule also defines “beneficial use” of coal ash to exclude disposal in  “sand mines, gravel pits and other quarries”. The federal rule treats placement of coal ash in a surface mine as  disposal rather than beneficial use and requires those projects to meet coal ash landfill standards.

Implications for North Carolina:

♦  The federal requirement that a project using 12,400 total tons or more of unencapsulated coal ash  demonstrate  no greater risk of release to the environment than use of other fill material will add a step not currently required  to permit a  structural fill project under state law.

♦ The  12,400 ton  threshold  potentially affects some projects classified as  small structural fills under the N.C. law (< 8,000 tons per acre or < 80,000 tons total).  Although  Session Law 2014-122   requires  a study of the standards  for  small structural fill projects, the law still allows those projects to be “deemed permitted” based on meeting those standards.  To be “deemed permitted”,  the developer must  submit certain information to DENR in advance but the project does not require an individual permit. The study required under Session Law 2014-122  will now need to consider how the new federal requirement affects both the approval process and the standards for large and small structural fill projects.

♦ New N.C.  standards for large structural fill projects  are very similar to the EPA minimum standards for  coal ash landfills,  although the EPA rule has more stringent standards in a few respects — such as the minimum separation from groundwater.  N.C.’s closure/post-closure requirements for large structural fills also closely match the federal requirements for closure/post-closure care at coal ash landfills. A more detailed comparison will be needed, but  it appears that N.C. would need to make only a few changes in state standards for large structural fill projects to make those standards consistent with the federal minimum  standards for coal ash landfills.

♦ It isn’t immediately clear (at least to me)  whether federal treatment of many structural fills  as disposal projects  — landfills by any other name — will have additional implications for developers of structural fill projects and subsequent purchasers of the property for redevelopment.

♦  It appears that disposal of coal ash in surface mines (other than coal mines) will  be required to  meet federal coal ash landfill standards without regard to the amount of coal ash used.

DEADLINES FOR IMPOUNDMENT CLOSURE.  EPA timelines for impoundment closure run from  the effective date of the EPA rule, which will be six months after publication of the final rule in the Federal Register.  To compare state and federal timelines,  this post assumes the federal rule will become effective on August 1, 2015 (which requires publication of the rule by January 31, 2015). The actual publication date  could move the effective date — and the compliance deadlines — forward or backward. The EPA rule also allows for some exceptions and extensions of time to the timelines. The timelines below are intended  to illustrate how the federal rule compares to the N.C. impoundment closure schedule; the timelines cannot be used to predict the closure date for any individual impoundment.

The North Carolina Coal Ash Management Act requires closure of all active and inactive coal ash ponds by December 31 2029, but prioritizes closure based on risk. The  North Carolina  law lists factors to be used in prioritizing impoundments for closure, but  generally leaves the decision on risk classification to the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) and the Coal Ash Management Commission. (The law itself designates four impoundments as high risk.)

N.C. Impoundment Closure Dates

CLOSURE DEADLINE RISK CATEGORY
December 31, 2018 High Risk
December 31, 2024 Intermediate Risk
December 31, 2029 Low Risk

While the state law provides a straightforward timeline for  closure of each category of impoundments,  it may be a  year before all of the impoundments in the state have been assigned  a risk category.

The EPA rule requires closure of existing impoundments based on specific conditions. The rule gives first priority for closure to “inactive impoundments” and then to unlined impoundments that have caused groundwater violations and active impoundments that do not meet new location and structural integrity standards.  Inactive impoundments have a hard closure deadline.  The other two deadlines follow from  assessing conditions at active impoundments.

EPA Impoundment Closure Dates

CLOSURE DEADLINE BASIS FOR CLOSURE
January 31, 2018 Inactive ImpoundmentsN1
August 1, 2020 or later (based on sampling) Leaking Unlined ImpoundmentsN2
August 1, 2020-January 31, 2024 Nonconforming Active ImpoundmentsN3

N1: “Inactive impoundment” includes any impoundment that stops receiving coal ash  before the federal rule goes into effect ( six months after publication of the final rule).  Inactive impoundments must be closed within three years; otherwise the utility will have to bring the impoundment into compliance with location and structural integrity standards for  existing impoundments and install a groundwater monitoring system.  But see the previous post for  more  on  application of the federal rule to inactive impoundments located at closed  electric generation facilities.

N2: The rule gives impoundment owners 18 months to determine whether an existing impoundment has a liner meeting standards in the rule and up to two years to install a groundwater monitoring system and collect background samples. (The two time periods run concurrently.)  Within six months after detecting a groundwater standard violation for a listed contaminant, an unlined impoundment must stop receiving coal ash and begin closure.  The listed contaminants: antimony, arsenic, barium, beryllium, cadmium, chromium, fluoride, lead, mercury, molybdenum, selenium, thallium, cobalt, lithium, and radium 226 and 228 combined.  Closure must generally be  completed within 5 years.

N.C.’s water quality program began requiring groundwater monitoring around coal ash ponds several years ago and groundwater standard  violations  have already been documented at a number of  impoundments.  The date in the chart reflects the earliest possible 5-year closure deadline based on  the existence of  monitoring data  showing  an  exceedence of a groundwater standard  at the time the federal rule goes into effect. For unlined impoundments that do not already have a groundwater monitoring system, the earliest closure deadline  could be as late as   January 31, 2023. Since groundwater monitoring will be ongoing, it is also possible for closure to be triggered by a groundwater exceedence detected later.

N3:  The federal rule allows up to three years from the effective date of the rule for a utility to demonstrate compliance with new standards for existing, active impoundments. An impoundment  found not to meet the standards must stop receiving coal ash within six months and start the closure process. The 5-year closure deadline  runs from the date the utility determines that an existing impoundment does not meet the  standards. So the earliest closure deadline (for impoundments determined to be nonconforming at the time the federal rule goes into effect) would be  between August 1, 2020 and January 31, 2021.   The latest possible closure deadline  (for a utility that takes the full three years to assess compliance with the standards) would be between  August 1, 2023 and  January 31, 2024. The rule allows for an extension of time under specific circumstances.

 Several things to note:

♦  The federal rule could push a significant number of N.C. impoundments to closure within the next 3-9 years  based on the number of inactive impoundments and  an additional number  of active impoundments that may not meet  federal  location/structural integrity standards or have groundwater standard violations for listed contaminants. By comparison, the N.C. rule would allow 10-15 years for closure of all but the most high risk impoundments.

♦  One way  to  reconcile the state’s  risk-based priorities for closure with the federal rule  would be to base the state’s high risk classification on factors  (such as groundwater contamination) that will drive early closure of existing impoundments under the federal rule. Since DENR has not yet developed guidelines for risk classification of impoundments, there will be an opportunity to take the federal rule into consideration.

♦  The EPA rule requires final closure of  inactive impoundments within three years. As of spring 2014, Duke Energy identified 16 of the 32 impoundments in  North Carolina as inactive.   Twelve of the sixteen are  located at the site of a closed  coal-fired  power plant.  Given the complexity  of the federal rule as applied to inactive impoundments at closed generating plants — and some degree of confusion within the federal rule itself (see the previous post)  — it isn’t immediately clear how many of North Carolina’s inactive impoundments will be affected by the early closure deadline. Depending on the final interpretation of the federal rule, a significant number of N.C. impoundments could be required to complete closure within the next three years.

CONCLUSION. In a number of ways,  North Carolina has a stronger overall framework for regulating coal ash disposal than the federal rule provides. But there are a few areas where North Carolina will need to  decide how to reconcile state and federal requirements to avoid  conflicts. Otherwise, electric utilities could be in compliance with the North Carolina program but still vulnerable to citizen suits for enforcement of the federal requirements.

EPA’s Coal Ash Rules: Part 1 (The Basics)

December 23, 2014. Staring down a court-ordered deadline, EPA released a final coal ash rule on Friday. Happy Holidays!

Some basic things to know about the federal rule:

♦ This  federal rule sets minimum standards for disposal of  coal combustion residuals (more commonly called “coal ash”), but other state and federal regulations will continue to apply to coal ash disposal as well. The most significant may be the federal Clean Water Act and state water quality standards; the federal Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act  (“CERCLA”) which addresses liability for remediation of contaminated property; state landfill regulations; state groundwater protection standards; and requirements of North Carolina’s 2014 Coal Ash Management Act.

♦ As expected, EPA decided to regulate coal ash as solid waste rather than hazardous waste. “Solid waste” covers everything from household trash to nonhazardous industrial waste and discarded construction materials. Although coal ash often contains toxic heavy metals such as selenium, EPA  concluded that the low concentration of hazardous substances in coal ash did not justify applying  hazardous waste regulations to coal ash disposal.  

♦ The federal rule has been adopted under sections of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) that authorize EPA to adopt minimum standards for disposal of solid waste. As interpreted by EPA, those sections of RCRA do not authorize federal permitting requirements or federal enforcement.  So while the EPA rule sets minimum federal standards for disposal of coal ash,  EPA will  not enforce the standards or require states to adopt and enforce the standards.  If a state choses to incorporate the federal standards into state rules, the state can take enforcement action under state law. Otherwise, the only enforcement of the new federal standards will be through citizen suits. As EPA acknowledged, reliance on self-enforcement and citizen suits creates a higher than usual level of regulatory uncertainty for the electric utilities.  Without a federal or state agency as intermediary, utilities may find it difficult to predict either the filing or the outcome of an enforcement case.

Note:  Existing N.C. laws and rules already incorporate many of the minimum federal design and location standards for coal ash landfills.  N.C. has also long required permits for those landfills. As a result, N.C. already has a regulatory structure that, with only minor amendments, could be used to enforce the new federal standards.

♦ Unlike N.C.’s 2014 Coal Ash Management Act, the federal rule does not directly require electric utilities to phase out the use of  surface impoundments for disposal of coal ash. Instead, the rule sets location and design standards for new, expanded and existing coal ash impoundments. New impoundments and expansions of existing impoundments will require liners. Although the EPA rule does not require existing impoundments to be retrofitted with liners, an unlined impoundment must stop receiving coal ash and move toward final closure within six months after groundwater monitoring detects an exceedence for a listed contaminant. (The rule allows 30 months to install a groundwater monitoring system and gather sample data, so a closure based on groundwater impacts may come only after several years of continued use.)

The rule seems to give the owner of an existing impoundment the option of avoiding the new standards by ending coal ash disposal in the impoundment within six months after publication of the final EPA rule in the Federal Register. Ending disposal within the six-month window makes the impoundment an “inactive impoundment” category under the rule. Inactive impoundments do not have to meet the new standards, but must close within 30 months after publication of the final EPA rule. (But see the next bullet point on uncertainty about how broadly the EPA rule applies to inactive impoundments.)

♦ The EPA rule clearly applies to inactive impoundments at facilities still generating electricity (even if the power plant no longer burns coal).  It is not clear whether the rule also applies to inactive impoundments still maintained by an active electric utility on the site of a shuttered electric generation plant. The Dan River Steam Station impoundment would fit into that category. Some EPA statements suggest the rule only applies to inactive impoundments located at active electric generation plants. That would mean the closure requirements in the rule would not apply to impoundments at idled electric generation facilities like the Dan River plant.  But conflicting statements in the rule preamble and the wording of the rule itself could also support an interpretation that the rule applies to inactive impoundments owned by an active electric utility without regard to the location of the impoundment. Some additional clarification by EPA would be helpful.

♦ The EPA rule treats placement of coal ash in surface mines (such as sand pits, gravel pits and quarries) as solid waste disposal — not as a beneficial use. As a result, disposal in a surface mine will have to meet the federal standards for a coal ash landfill. The rule also  casts a somewhat jaundiced eye on other large-scale uses of coal ash for structural fill and landscaping. With the exception of use in road construction, the rule would not consider use of more than 12,400 tons of un-encapsulated coal ash to be a beneficial use unless it presents no greater risk of release to the environment than use of other materials or will meet  all benchmarks for protection of the environment and public health.  Without those assurances, the application of coal ash would be regulated under the federal rule as solid waste disposal rather than beneficial use.

♦ The EPA rule does not set any performance standards for projects that qualify as beneficial use under the federal definition. Instead, EPA has deferred to the states and to federal agencies that have already adopted technical standards for use of coal ash in federally-funded projects (such as highway construction).

The EPA rule includes detailed standards for design and location of coal ash landfills and impoundments; groundwater monitoring; remediation; structural integrity; and final closure of landfills and impoundments. Part II will look at the effect of the EPA rule on implementation of N.C.’s Coal Ash Management Act.

N.C. Coal Ash Bill Becomes Law

September 24, 2014. On September 20, Senate Bill 729 (the Coal Ash Management Act) became law without the Governor’s signature. Governor Pat McCrory had expressed concern that a provision in the bill giving legislators the majority of appointments to the new Coal Ash Management Commission violated the constitutional doctrine of separation of powers. Rather than  veto the bill, the governor allowed the bill to become law without his signature and signaled an intent to ask the N.C. Supreme Court for an advisory opinion on the constitutionality of the appointments provision.

In the meantime,  Senate Bill 729  — now Session Law 2014-122 — makes a number of  immediate changes to state law  and sets in motion a  15-year  process for remediating and then closing thirty-three existing coal ash impoundments. An earlier post provided an overview of the  final bill and now attention will turn to implementation.

 NEAR TERM 

  • Effective October 1, 2014 the law prohibits utilities from building new impoundments or expanding existing impoundments for disposal of coal ash.
  • Also effective October 1, 2014, the law  prohibits use of impoundments at closed electric generating facilities for coal ash disposal. The provision prevents a utility from transporting coal ash from an active generation plant to a closed facility for disposal in an impoundment.
  • By October 1, 2014, the utilities must submit a survey to the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) identifying all drinking water wells within 1/2 mile down-gradient of an impoundment.
  • The law requires the utilities to submit groundwater assessment plans  and  maps showing discharges to surface waters (both permitted and unpermitted) for all 33 impoundments by December 31,  2014.  The maps and groundwater assessment plans represent the first in a series of steps leading to remediation of  groundwater contamination around the impoundments and elimination of unpermitted discharges to surface waters.
  • S.L. 2014-122 sets much more stringent standards for use of coal ash in large structural fill projects and puts a moratorium on smaller structural fill projects to study appropriate standards for those projects.  (“Structural fill” projects involve the use of coal combustion residuals as fill material to level a construction site, build up a road bed, or otherwise change site elevation before construction.) The new standards include setbacks from surface waters and drinking water wells; a requirement for synthetic liners and a leachate collection system; a four-foot separation between the lowest level of fill and groundwater; financial assurance; and standards for closure.
  • Amendments to the state Dam Safety Act require dam owners to  prepare an emergency action plan for each high and intermediate risk impoundment. (The provision applies to all impoundments regulated under the Dam Safety Act and not  just coal ash impoundments.)
  • Dam Safety Act amendments also set minimum requirements for inspection of coal ash impoundment by the utilities   (weekly and following storms) and by DENR  (annually).
  • A new fee imposed on electric utilities that own coal ash impoundments will fund regulatory activities at DENR and the new Coal Ash Management Commission. The law authorizes use of the revenue to create  5 positions in the Department of Public Safety to support the Coal Ash Management Commission and 25 new positions in DENR.
  • S.L. 2014-122 amends state law  to require notice to DENR of any wastewater spill to  surface waters  as soon as practicable, but no more than 24 hours after the spill reaches surface waters.  The law also shortens the time allowed to provide notice to the public  from 48 hours to 24 hours.
  •  S.L. 2014-122 repeals most of a controversial 2013 regulatory reform provision on groundwater remediation by eliminating statutory language that: 1.  created a presumption that the groundwater compliance boundary around a waste disposal site should be at the property boundary;  and 2. limited DENR’s ability to require measures within the compliance boundary to control groundwater contamination. A provision in the same section of  S.L. 2014-122  created a new controversy, however, by reversing a recent superior court decision interpreting state groundwater remediation rules. (For an explanation of the controversy, see the earlier post.)
  • The law creates new civil and criminal penalties for violation of laws related to management of coal ash.

The law also requires a number of actions over the next year intended to  expand beneficial uses of coal ash. The most unusual provision requires the electric utilities  to issue a request for proposals by December 31, 2014 for:

(i) the conduct of a market analysis for the concrete industry and other industries that might beneficially use coal combustion residuals and coal combustion products; (ii) the study of the feasibility and advisability of installation of technology to convert existing and newly generated coal combustion residuals to commercial-grade coal combustion products suitable for use in the concrete industry and other industries that might beneficially use coal combustion residuals; and (iii) an examination of all innovative technologies that might be applied to diminish, recycle or reuse, or mitigate the impact of existing and newly generated coal combustion residuals.

LONGER  TERM

S.L. 2014-122 gives  the impoundments at four coal-fired plants (Dan River Steam Station, Riverbend Steam Station, Asheville Steam Electric Generating Plant and the Sutton Plant) priority for final closure. The law then directs DENR to classify  the other 10 impoundment sites in the state based on risk by the end of 2015. Under  the law,  final closure of impoundments classified as high or intermediate risk will require removal of all coal ash for disposal in a lined industrial landfill (on or off-site) or for  beneficial reuse. Impoundments classified as low risk  have the additional closure option of capping the coal ash in place as long as the closure plan includes measures that will prevent groundwater contamination beyond the compliance boundary.

S.L. 2014-122 sets final closure deadlines based on the risk classification — December 31, 2019 for high risk impoundments; December 31, 2024 for intermediate risk impoundments and December 31, 2029 for low risk impoundments.

OPPORTUNITIES AND PITFALLS

S.L. 2014-122 marks a real and significant change in environmental policy — forcing a transition away from use of wet impoundments for coal ash disposal and toward more protective methods of disposal and safe reuse.   In support of that policy decision, the law provides statutory timelines  for assessment, remediation and final closure of all 33 impoundments and  new resources for state oversight.

Even with resources to implement S.L. 2014-122, it will be difficult to hold to the timelines in the law without an ongoing commitment on the part of the General Assembly, DENR and the electric utilities. Any number of bureaucratic and technical problems could delay or derail implementation of the law.  (The thirty new positions authorized under the bill do not magically appear  when the bill becomes law — getting from legislative authorization of a new position to having a person  on the job  usually  takes months.) The goals of the law won’t be met if the state too easily gives in to unnecessary delays.

Decisions on remediation; classification of impoundments for closure; and approval of closure plans will present a different kind of challenge. There will be an inevitable tension between the utilities’ desire to keep the  cost of compliance  low and the state’s responsibility to protect  groundwater and surface water resources. The bill creates another potential source of tension by giving the new Coal Ash Management Commission  — not DENR — the authority to make final decisions on classification of impoundments and approval of closure plans. The Commission will have a very small staff and the law does not require any commission member to have expertise in  groundwater hydrology or water quality  –  likely to be critical in prioritizing sites for closure and approving closure plans.  With good luck and the right appointments, the arrangement  might work; or it could  lead to  conflict and overly politicized decision-making.