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Local organizations join lawsuit against EPA for failing to regulate some coal ash landfills

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A civil rights organization in Indiana and a local environmental organization are joining a federal lawsuit against the Environmental Protection Agency and its administrator for failing to regulate coal ash landfills that are causing concern for cancers and pollutants in low-income communities and communities of color.

The Hoosier Environmental Council and LaPorte County branch of the Indiana NAACP joined four other organizations in the lawsuit filed Aug. 25.

The lawsuit claims an exemption in a 2015 EPA ruling allowed some inactive coal ash landfills to “escape critical safeguards, including monitoring, inspection, closure, cleanup, and reporting requirements.”

A spokesperson for the EPA said it does not comment on pending litigation.

Coal ash, which produces the majority of industrial waste in the U.S., is the material left after burning coal that contains dangerous chemicals such as mercury, lithium and arsenic, according to Indra Frank, director of Environmental Health and Water Policy at the HEC. The chemicals are known to be carcinogenic and can cause behavioral problems, Frank said.

Coal ash produces byproducts including fine ash that can be carried through wind, coarse ash that forms at the bottom of the coal furnace because it is too large to be carried into the smokestack, and a coarse, hard, glassy material.

Some plants may dispose of the coal ash in landfills, ponds or reuse it in cement or covering material for walls and ceilings in homes and businesses.

The 2015 ruling addresses the risk of coal ash disposal, including the risk of groundwater contamination and blowing of contaminants into the air as dust, but it created a loophole for early closures that exempt inactive landfills that ceased operations prior to October 2015. Inactive landfills are absolved from critical closing procedures such as groundwater monitoring and using caps and liners to prevent groundwater contamination. All of the landfills in Indiana without a liner have groundwater contamination, Frank said.

There are 21 inactive landfills in Indiana — half of which are in Petersburg, two on either side of the Indiana Dunes National Park and several others in southern Indiana.

map_of_inactive_landfill_plants

In 2016, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit closed the loophole for coal ash ponds and ordered that they comply with closing procedures, but did not address coal ash landfills, said Mychal Ozaeta, senior associate attorney for Earthjustice, a group representing the two organizations in the lawsuit. The lawsuit aims to bring the same closing procedures to landfills.

The ruling subjected a local power generating station to comply with closing standards when it stopped burning coal in 2016. The Harding Street Generating Station had eight ash ponds before it closed, half of which are exempt from closing procedures. The Indiana Department of Management hasn’t made a decision on the closure plan, said Tim Maloney, senior policy director at the HEC. Leaving the coal ash in ponds or landfills is producing the highest-risk outcome to the environment and the community, he said.

“Coal ash has toxic contaminants, yet our regulations are weaker than household trash,” Maloney said.

The EPA is required to review the exceptions for coal ash landfills every three years, according to the lawsuit. That review is more than four years overdue as of the date of the filing, the lawsuit alleges.

“It’s almost like they’re left there, no one’s taking a look, no one’s keeping an eye,” Ozaeta said. “And I think the real issue, too, is historically a lot of coal-fired power plants are in predominantly low-income communities and communities of color.”

There is enough coal ash in the inactive landfills around the United States to fill train cars that wrap around the Earth twice, according to Earthjustice.

Frank said revising the 2015 ruling could make the inactive landfills follow regulations and disposal standards.

“We would be doing a much better job of protecting our water resources,” Frank said. “And maybe that could stop some of the groundwater contamination that we’re seeing now.”

Contact staff writer Jayden Kennett 317-762-7847 or email jaydenk@indyrecorder.com. Follow her on Twitter @JournoJay.

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