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Coal ash from power plants will be regulated by the federal government for the first time under stricter disposal rules proposed Tuesday by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said "common-sense national protections" are needed to avoid another spill such as the December 2008 accident that dumped more than 1 billion gallons of coal ash from TVA's Kingston Fossil Plant in Roane County, Tenn.

"We're proposing strong steps to address the serious risk of groundwater contamination and threats to drinking water, and we're also putting in place stronger safeguards against structural failures of coal ash impoundments," Ms. Jackson told reporters during a briefing on the new rules.

But the EPA proposals, which were delayed for months by disputes over how far to regulate products left over after coal is burned, have yet to settle the debate on how best to dispose of or reuse the 136 million tons of ash generated each year by America's power utilities.

Environmental and industry groups continued to quarrel Tuesday on whether coal ash should be regarded as a hazardous waste and whether dumping coal ash in ponds like the one at TVA's Kingston plant should continue.

Critics of the coal industry prefer EPA's proposal to regulate coal ash as "special waste" under the hazardous waste section of the federal Resource Recovery and Conservation Act.

But utility industry officials said it would prefer EPA's other proposal to regulate coal ash under the non-hazardous waste section of the law, even though EPA still is proposing that coal ash be disposed of only in lined ponds or landfills in the future.

Ms. Jackson said EPA would hold hearings and seek public comment for 90 days on both plans before issuing a final decision. The new rules would be phased in over five years, she said.

costs for tva

The Tennessee Valley Authority, which already is spending up to $1.2 billion to clean up the Kingston ash spill, is starting a program to convert its six coal plants from wet to dry storage of coal ash.

TVA spokeswoman Barbara Martocci said the conversions will cost from $1.5 billion to $2 billion over the next eight to 10 years. But that timetable likely would have to be expedited if EPA adopts the stricter coal ash regulations, she said.

Randy Ellis, vice chairman of the Roane County Community Advisory Group, which was organized after the ash spill at the Kingston plant, urged TVA to adopt EPA's recommendations for disposal of ash in lined landfills.

BY THE NUMBERS

* 136 million -- Tons of coal ash generated each year by power plants

* 56 -- Percentage of coal ash dumped in landfills or utility ponds

* $1.47 billion -- Projected annual cost to meet the stricter EPA-regulated coal ash standards

* $587 million -- Estimated cost to comply with narrower EPA waste disposal standards enforced by the states

* 42 -- Number of coal impoundment releases from 1995 to 2009, including spills in Kingston and Oak Ridge, Tenn., and Cartersville, Ga.

Source: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

"My question is, with the EPA now calling for all current storage ponds and landfills to be lined, will TVA take a proactive approach and put it in a lined landfill or will they just rush and try to finish before the new rule takes affect?" he asked.

Environmentalists said coal ash contains arsenic, cadmium, chromium, mercury, selenium and other substances defined as hazardous and is threatening the water supplies and air quality around some power plants.

But EPA stopped short of labeling coal ash as a hazardous material so as not to discourage reuse of coal ash in concrete, cement, wallboard and other contained applications, officials said.

"EPA supports the legitimate beneficial use of coal combustion residuals," said Mathy Stanislaus, assistant administrator for EPA's Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response. "Environmentally sound, beneficial uses of ash conserve resources, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, lessen the need for waste disposal units and provide significant domestic economic benefits."

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