Coal ash ponds in the crosshairs

Jack Shafer

GREENS GAIN GROUND ON GROUNDWATER: Environmental groups have notched up a pair of big legal wins that could spell trouble for the coal ash ponds that leak toxic pollution into the groundwater that ultimately ends up in rivers and lakes protected by the Clean Water Act. And it could put utilities on the hook for billions of dollars in clean-up costs.

Green groups, led by the Southern Environmental Law Center, have begun suing utilities under the Clean Water Act, Pro’s Annie Snider reports. They argue that unlined waste ponds leaking ash that contains arsenic, mercury and lead into groundwater violates the landmark 1972 water law. And while groundwater pollution is largely regulated by states — leaving the Clean Water Act to regulate point sources — environmentalists have successfully argued that any pollution coming from a point source that eventually reaches a federally protected water is a violation of the law, regardless of the path it takes to get there.

“We haven’t viewed any of our Clean Water Act claims to be unusual or novel. We consider them to be enforcing just the central provisions of the law,” said Frank Holleman, who has led a number of such lawsuits for SELC. Any other reading, Holleman said, would “blow a huge hole in the coverage of the Clean Water Act.” Notably, courts have agreed with that sentiment in two major appellate cases, although the pollution at issue in those suits wasn't from coal ash ponds. Read more here.

Reminder: Today marks the deadline for comments to EPA’s proposed changes to its coal ash rule.

Related reading: Environment America Research and Policy Center, U.S. PIRG Education Fund and Frontier Group are issuing a report examining the threat to waterways posed by coal ash ponds. The report, titled “Accidents Waiting to Happen: Coal Ash Ponds Put Our Waterways at Risk,” found that in the U.S., at least 14 coal plants with on-site ash ponds are within FEMA 100-year flood zones. Read it here.

HOW TRUMP WILL GO AFTER CALIFORNIA’S AUTO GHG AUTHORITY: The Trump administration plans to argue that California does not have the authority to enforce stringent greenhouse gas emissions standards for cars, despite the Obama administration’s 2009 waiver, according to a source familiar with a forthcoming proposed regulation. The draft, which is a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration document but also names EPA, includes eight regulatory options for future CAFE standards. The preferred option would freeze the standards at model year 2020 levels through at least model year 2026 vehicles, erasing some of the biggest climate-related policies of the Obama administration, according to the source.

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