After nearly six years of debate, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says coal ash should be regulated as non-hazardous waste, a decision endorsed by electric cooperatives and coal plant operators.

“Electric cooperatives support the EPA’s decision to designate coal ash as a non-hazardous waste,” said National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA) CEO Jo Ann Emerson. “The agency’s approach, supported by data from its own investigation of the nation’s coal ash disposal sites, appropriately balances the need to protect public health and the environment without creating an undue burden on co-ops.

“We are encouraged the agency has included a compliance option allowing states to incorporate the federal criteria in their own state waste management plans, and will consider such plans compliant with the rule,” she said.

The highly anticipated rule, issued Dec. 19, represents the first federal regulation of coal ash, a byproduct of coal-based power plants.

It includes provisions to monitor groundwater at coal ash disposal sites, ensure the structural soundness of impoundments and implement performance-based management standards. The rule is expected to go into effect in the latter half of 2015.

NRECA also welcomed the rule’s continued support for beneficial uses of coal ash and other coal combustion residuals.

“CCR constitutes one of the largest waste streams generated in the U.S. Many generation and transmission cooperatives use their coal ash and other CCR to produce cement, concrete, wallboard, roofing materials and other products,” Emerson said. “This rule allows these beneficial reuse programs to continue and grow.”

With the rule, states can choose to revise their waste management plans to incorporate the federal standards or adopt more stringent ones.

Arizona’s G&T Cooperatives/Arizona Electric Power Cooperative and the Apache Generating Station already meet strict guidelines as regulated by the Arizona Department of Water Resources (ADWR) Dam Safety and Flood Mitigation Division, and the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ).

The EPA rule will strongly impact facilities that are not lined, that do not conduct groundwater monitoring, or that have monitored wells which have shown contamination; the AEPCO facilities are lined, groundwater monitoring is conducted on a regular basis and the facilities have never had an unpermitted release.

“As local organizations owned by the members they serve, electric co-ops take seriously the responsibility to protect communities and the environment. Accordingly, co-ops have supported federal standards for coal ash management,” Emerson said. “At the end of the day, we all benefit from clear rules governing how we protectively manage this waste.”