Turning the Lights Off on Environmental Justice?—Not this Administration

Posted on June 24, 2016 by Renee Cipriano

In the United States, Environmental Justice (EJ) began to take shape in the mid-1990s with the signing by President Clinton of Executive Order 12,898, “Federal Actions to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low Income Populations.”  Over the years, the commitment to EJ has ebbed and flowed.  However, in 2011, EPA unveiled “EJ 2014,” the Obama Administration’s comprehensive plan for EJ.  The plan breathed new life into the EJ movement and focused on incorporating EJ concerns into EPA’s regulatory arenas.

EJ 2014 produced a number of very detailed implementation plans with targeted action.  For example, EPA developed its National Enforcement Initiatives for fiscal year 2011-2013 by targeting enforcement in communities considered “overburdened”.  In EPA’s permitting programs, the Agency sought to ensure that it provided EJ communities potentially impacted by the permitting decision a meaningful opportunity to participate.  Moreover, EPA asked permittees to provide “supported analysis” that no unacceptable, disproportionate impact to the community would result from the permitted activity. 

Sounds good, right?  Some would say “just ok.”  Although EPA could point to what it identified as successes of EJ 2014, criticisms of EPA’s commitment to the integration of EJ into programmatic decisions in a meaningful way remained.  EJ community activists and other interested non-governmental organizations still questioned EPA’s regulatory ability to demand that disproportionate impacts be addressed.  Could a permit be denied or conditioned solely because the regulated activity had a disproportionate impact on an overburdened community?  What is “an actionable, disproportionate impact” and what does “overburdened” mean?  Were EPA’s significant rulemakings truly addressing EJ concerns through clear mandates or restrictions?  And what about the countless complaints filed with the EPA Office of Civil Rights under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act?  A broken system, some say, claiming that over 95% of Title VI complaints are dismissed. 

Arguably, the Obama Administration has achieved the best successes in EJ to date.  Not only can EPA point to real impacts at the federal level, but there are also visible signs of EJ integration in state-administered environmental regulatory programs.  The Administration probably could have rested easily on its good work with EJ in the remaining months in office with very little push back.  Not this Administration, however, and not where environmental justice is concerned. 

Two very significant initiatives are underway right now with seemingly little consideration given to the end of the Obama Administration.  First, in January 2016, the United States Commission on Civil Rights (Commission) announced its intention to hold a briefing on EPA’s work under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act and Executive Order 12,898 with a focus on the civil rights implications of siting coal ash disposal facilities near minority and low-income communities.  With this announcement and briefing, the Commission has sought to further its 2016 statutory reporting project on EJ.  In particular, the Commission has identified its work to address and reduce the “backlog of Title VI complaints” handled by EPA’s Office of Civil Rights.  The Commission has also tasked its State Advisory Committees (SACs) to undertake a similar review.  The Commission’s activities with respect to EJ are clearly underway in earnest, as is the work of the SACs.

Second, in May 2016, EPA released the final draft of its EJ2020 Action Agenda.  According to the Agency, “EJ2020 is EPA’s EJ plan of action that will involve every EPA office and region.  EJ2020 consists of “eight priority areas and four significant national environmental justice challenges.”  The Action Agenda, currently open for public comment until July 7, 2016, builds on EJ 2014 and specifically includes addressing national challenges, including lead disparities, drinking water systems, air quality, and hazardous waste sites, as a way to measure success.   

In addition to EPA’s work on the national challenges, the Agency’s rulemaking and permitting efforts under EJ2020 should be of great interest to environmental regulatory practitioners.  EPA has released new guidance (June 2016) presenting its “analytical” approach for EJ review of significant rules.  Also, EPA plans to use permit terms and conditions to address EJ concerns and has folded into its agenda “next generation-esque” community-based monitoring approaches.

With no indication of slowing down, the Obama Administration is certainly looking to leave the lights on for environmental justice through the next administration.  The EJ2020 agenda and the results of work by the Commission may very well set a tone and approach that cannot easily be undone.  Yet significant challenges remain to incorporate EJ considerations in regulatory decision making.  Questions also exist: are the EJ policies truly advancing the interests of overburdened communities?  In May 2016, for example, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit upheld EPA’s broad discretion in settling Title VI actions, even after the Agency had excluded the overburdened community members from participating in the settlement negotiations.  Whether EPA can address this and other challenges remains to be seen.  For now, any commitment by this Administration to tackle EJ challenges is overshadowed by the presidential election and the uncertain future direction of EPA.   We can only wait and see if the lights will dim or burn brightly on this important initiative.

Coal Ash Rulemaking

Posted on February 21, 2013 by Andrew Brown

In December 2008, a surface impoundment maintained by the Tennessee Valley Authority in Kingston, Tennessee failed and the coal combustion residuals (CCRs) stored in those impoundment flooded more than 300 acres of land and flowed into Emory and Clinch Rivers.  CCRs, often referred to as coal ash, are residues from the combustion of coal in power plants that are captured by scrubbers and other pollution control equipment.  CCRs are currently exempt wastes under RCRA but following the TVA spill EPA proposed to regulate coal ash for the first time. 
 
On June 21, 2010, EPA issued its proposed CCR rule.  The proposed regulation considers two options for the regulation of CCRs.  Under the first option, CCRs would be regulated as special wastes subject to nearly full regulation as hazardous wastes under RCRA Subtitle C.  If CCRs are regulated as “hazardous waste,” disposal will likely be required at specially-permitted, off-site hazardous waste disposal facilities.  Under the second option, CCRs would be regulated as solid waste under Subtitle D of RCRA.  Under this option, EPA is likely to establish national standards for surface impoundments and landfills.   If CCRs are regulated under Subtitle D, it is likely a composite liner, a leachate collection and removal system, and a leak detection system will need to be installed at existing ash ponds.
 
EPA has not yet taken final action on the proposed CCR rule and has been sued by an environmental group who seeks the issuance of the final rule.   In that case, Appalachian Voices v. Jackson, the Agency stated “EPA cannot at this time provide a well-informed judgment as to the specific amount of time that is needed to conclude its review and any necessary revisions of these regulations, and EPA therefore requests an opportunity, following further administrative proceedings, to provide this Court with supplemental briefing at a later date regarding final remedy.”  Two actions (I, II) were consolidated in the Appalachian Voices case. EPA has indicated that the final CCR rule is not likely to be issued before the fourth quarter 2013. 

EPA REVISITS REGULATION OF COAL COMBUSTION RESIDUALS

Posted on May 12, 2010 by Larry Ausherman

Summary

On May 4, 2010, EPA released its proposed rule to regulate disposal and management of coal combustion residuals (“CCRs”) from coal-fired power plants. The 563 page proposal presents for public comment two alternative approaches. In one approach, EPA would regulate CCRs as a new category of “special wastes” under Subtitle C of RCRA when they are destined for disposal in landfills or surface impoundments. Under the alternative approach, EPA would use Subtitle D of RCRA to set performance standards for disposal of CCRs in landfills and impoundments that would be enforced principally by States. Under both proposals, beneficially used CCRs would be exempt from hazardous waste regulation under RCRA. Neither proposal would have EPA regulate placement of CCRs in mines or non-minefill uses of CCRs at coal mine sites.

 

What are CCRs?

CCRs are residual materials that remain after combustion of coal to generate electric power. This material is also sometimes referred to as coal ash, coal combustion waste, or coal combustion byproducts. Large volumes of CCRs are generated by power plants in the United States. Some CCRs are beneficially used in other products or processes, some are returned to mines as reclamation material or for non-minefill uses and the rest is disposed at landfills.
 

How are CCRs Regulated Now?

In August 1993 and May 2000, EPA considered whether to regulate CCRs as a hazardous waste under Subtitle C of RCRA, and determined not to do so. Instead, it applied the Bevill Amendment exception (for mining activities) to CCRs and left open the possibility that States may regulate disposal of CCRs. The Office of Surface Mining in the United States Department of the Interior (“OSM”) has authority to regulate placement of CCRs in mines as part of coal mine reclamation.

 

Why is EPA Revisiting its Previous Determinations Not To Regulate CCRs Under RCRA, Subtitle C?

In December 2008, in Kingston, Tennessee, a retaining wall of a TVA surface impoundment used for disposal of CCRs breached, and CCRs saturated with water from the impoundment were released. The release prompted renewed scrutiny of CCR disposal practices and, in large part, prompted EPA’s decision to revisit previous determinations not to regulate CCRs. EPA’s re-evaluation of CCR disposal since the Kingston release has prompted substantial debate resulting in the delayed announcement of EPA’s May 4, 2010 proposal.

 

Two Options for Regulation.

In light of strongly held opposing views about regulation of CCRs and the EPA’s desire to avoid further delay in issuing a proposed rule, EPA’s proposal is in the somewhat unusual format of two alternative options. After a 90 day public comment, EPA will decide upon an approach to regulation.

 

Under the more stringent of the two options, EPA would reverse its previous Bevill Amendment determination, address CCRs as a “special wastes” under RCRA Subtitle C, and regulate the disposal of CCRs in landfills or surface impoundments. “Special wastes” would be a new waste category that would be subject to some, but not all, of Subtitle C requirements applicable to hazardous waste. The Subtitle C option would regulate CCRs from the point of generation to final disposal and would include regulation of siting, liners, run-on and run-off controls, ground water monitoring, fugitive dust controls, financial assurance, corrective action and closure. The Subtitle C approach is favored by environmental groups but opposed by electric power generators because it would significantly increase CCR disposal costs.

 

The less stringent alternative regulatory option proposed by EPA would leave the Agency’s previous Bevill determination in place so that CCRs would not be regulated under Subtitle C of RCRA. However, CCRs disposed of in surface impoundment or landfills would be subject to RCRA Subtitle D. This option would not require permits from EPA, and requirements would be enforced primarily by States rather than EPA.

 

Exclusions.

Certain uses and disposals of CCRs are not covered by EPA’s proposed rule making. First, EPA is not proposing to change the existing regulatory exemption from hazardous waste regulations for beneficially used CCRs. Examples of beneficial uses of CCRs may be road construction, agriculture, and building products. EPA is seeking comment on potential refinements for certain beneficial uses. Second, EPA is not proposing to address placement of CCRs in coal mines or non-minefill uses of CCRs at coal mines. Instead, OSM, in consultation with EPA, will consider recommendations of the National Research Council and take the lead in developing national standards for placement of CCRs at coal mines. Third, EPA has not proposed to revise its previous Bevill determination for CCRs generated by non-utilities.

 

Public Comment.

A 90 day public comment period will begin when the proposed rule is published in the Federal Register. Comments can be submitted to EPA, identified by docket ID No. EPA-HQ-RCRA-2009-0640.