The Environmental Protection Agency on Monday approved the first state permit program for disposal of toxic ash from coal plants, a switch from federal oversight that the coal industry had sought.
Coal ash is the residue left after burning coal to generate power. Utilities around the country have reported groundwater contamination with arsenic, radium and other pollutants at coal-burning power plants, where landfills and man-made ponds have been used for decades as dumping grounds for coal ash, according to data released by plant owners.
EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt said in a statement that the first approval of a state permit program, in Oklahoma, gives oversight to "those who are best positioned to oversee coal ash management — the officials who have intimate knowledge of the facilities and the environment in their state."
Environmental groups had argued against the transfer of oversight of coal ash disposal to states, arguing that state inaction had already contributed to widespread groundwater contamination.
U.S. coal plants produce about 100 million tons (90 million metric tons) annually of ash and other waste, much of which ends up in unlined disposal ponds prone to leak.
This spring, groundwater testing ordered by the EPA had found heightened levels of pollutants at plants in numerous states, from Virginia to Alaska, according to data released by plant owners.
Despite that emerging understanding of the extent of groundwater problems around coal ash sites, the "industry has asked for leniency, less stringency. That's the direction they're going," attorney Lisa Evans at the environmental Earthjustice nonprofit said of the EPA.
The states involved already have shown "they don't care about the health and safety of communities near coal ash dumps," Evans said.
Pruitt, a Republican and former Oklahoma attorney general, has proposed giving states and utilities more leeway in how they handle the waste, revising a 2015 federal rule that set tighter guidelines for waste from coal plants.
Erin Hatfield, spokeswoman of Oklahoma's Department of Environmental Quality, did not immediately return a call for comment Monday.
A leading U.S. coal producer, Robert Murray of Ohio, had raised the switch of oversight to states as part of a coal "action plan" that Murray presented to Pruitt and other Trump administration officials this spring, according to documents released under the Freedom of Information Act.
Congress in 2016 had approved the rule change that made the permitting programs by the states for coal ash possible.
Georgia also has submitted an application to run a state-permitting program for the coal waste sites, the EPA said.
Texas, a top coal producer, is among other states taking some of the first steps toward taking over permitting of the coal ash dumps, Evans said.