Power companies could soon have more flexibility in how they handle the ash that remains from a legacy of burning coal for power, but not if environmental groups have any say in the matter. Several facilities located near Chesapeake Bay rivers are in the process of closing pits where coal ash and water have comingled for decades amid changing regulations at the federal and state level.An ash pit at Dominion Energy’s Possum Point Power Plant near the Potomac River in Virginia was among the first in the state drained and excavated under the new coal ash regulations. The state has put a moratorium on new permits for draining and closing certain types of ash pits until legislators and the utility can agree on best practices for closure. (Whitney Pipkin)

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in July finalized its first batch of significant changes to standards imposed in 2015 by the Obama administration that required companies to begin closing certain inactive coal ash storage facilities. The rollback of those rules will take effect at the end of August, though they are likely to face legal challenges.

This summer’s revisions incorporate “alternative performance standards” that the EPA or a state could use to approve a coal ash permit, such as those required to release ash-tainted water into nearby waterways.

The agency also raised allowable levels of contaminants in groundwater. Boron, an element that is considered a leading indicator of the presence of other contaminants, was removed from the list.

“With this rule, EPA continues its pattern of rolling back environmental protections,” said Lisa Feldt, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s vice president for environmental protection and restoration, in a statement. “There are many documented cases where groundwater has been contaminated by coal ash storage facilities, damaging waterways and potentially, drinking water.”

Coal ash storage has been the subject of heated debate in Virginia, both at public meetings about environmental permits and in the General Assembly. Legislators passed a bill this year that requires companies with coal ash pits in the Chesapeake watershed to take another step toward recycling their contents rather than allowing the ash to be permanently stored in place.

Though the bill stops short of requiring recycling, it does force companies such as Dominion Energy, which maintains nearly a dozen coal ash pits in the state, to seek proposals from recycling contractors who integrate the ash into concrete and construction materials. The companies must compile the proposed costs in a report for lawmakers to consider by the end of the year.

The measure also extended until July 1, 2019, a prohibition on new state permits that would allow facilities to close coal ash pits by permanently storing their contents in place. Pits where the removal process is under way or completed, however, may finish the closure process.

Dominion officials say they support the measure and will work with legislators to further investigate the possibility of recycling long-stored coal ash from the sites. The company’s own report at the end of 2017 concluded that recycling would be too expensive at most of the sites in the Bay watershed. It favored an option, opposed by environmentalists, to store millions of tons of coal ash in mostly unlined pits, many of them located next to the Potomac and James rivers.

There has also been much debate in Virginia about how much groundwater monitoring should be required — and for how long — if coal ash is stored underground at sites near local rivers. The new federal rule would suspend groundwater monitoring altogether if evidence shows contamination would not reach an aquifer.

In Maryland, companies were already prohibited from storing coal ash in the watery pits that were the focal point of the 2015 regulations. But at least 31 landfills and mine fills containing ash still exist in the state, many of them in Allegany County, according to records maintained by the environmental group, EarthJustice. The organization considers many of Maryland’s regulations regarding groundwater monitoring to be “purely discretionary” and in need of reform.

The Trump administration drafted changes to the coal ash rules in the spring under former EPA administrator Scott Pruitt. Although some groups hoped the agency’s new leader, Andrew Wheeler, might change course on coal ash, the final changes take a similar tack, emphasizing the need to incorporate “flexibility” into the regulations.

“This is the first major rule signed during Andrew Wheeler’s time running the EPA, and his true colors are shining through. Wheeler is ignoring the serious health threats to hundreds of communities at risk from contaminated drinking water,” Earthjustice attorney Lisa Evans said in a statement that represented six organizations vowing to fight the changes.

Many of those groups spent more than a decade lobbying for the 2015 coal ash rule and the incremental improvements they believe will help protect waterways and drinking water from potential contamination.

Groups opposing the administration’s new rule have until the end of October to file legal challenges. The changes took effect on Aug. 29.