Regulations issued last week by the Environmental Protection Agency for waste from coal-fired power plants are welcome but fall short of fully protecting the public.
Coal ash — the residue left over after coal is burned to produce electricity — contains varying amounts of carcinogenic and toxic metals such as arsenic, barium and lead.
Kentucky produces about 9 million tons a year of the waste, which is stored in ponds and landfills.
Coal-ash impoundments in Ghent, Harrodsburg, Louisa and Louisville are classified as high hazard, meaning the potential for harm is high should they fail, not that they are unstable.
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This year, the Sierra Club said that state records show high levels of arsenic and other contaminants leaking from a Kentucky Utilities coal-ash pond into Herrington Lake, part of the Dix River watershed that provides drinking water to Danville and Lancaster. KU said it was not in violation.
In Louisville, neighbors of LG&E's Cane Run and Mill Creek power plants complain that coal ash blows onto their homes and also is contaminating the Ohio River.
Since a massive spill from a TVA coal-ash impoundment in Tennessee in 2008, scores of smaller leaks into streams and groundwater have been documented around the country. A large spill this year from a Duke Energy impoundment fouled the Dan River in North Carolina, imperiling several towns' drinking water.
The EPA, which was under a federal court's deadline to issue a regulation by Dec. 19, decided not to classify coal ash as hazardous, categorizing it instead as solid waste, the same as household garbage.
That decision, which disappointed environmentalists and will save utilities billions, means there still will be no direct federal scrutiny of coal-ash landfills and impoundments.
Instead the new federal rules will be enforced by state environmental agencies and, more likely in Kentucky, which has a high tolerance for coal industry shortcuts, by citizen lawsuits.
Under the new rules, utilities no longer will be able to add coal ash to sites with structural or engineering deficiencies or build impoundments on wetlands. Ponds and landfills will be subject to new monitoring, and inspection and utilities will be required to make more information available to the public.
One glaring weakness is the omission of closed sites from the new regulations.
The Obama EPA, under attack by Senate Leader-elect Mitch McConnell and Republicans out to protect the coal industry, might have thought that any new spending by utilities to improve environmental controls would do more good curbing heat-trapping gases that are warming the atmosphere and disrupting the climate and weather.
Viewed globally, that makes sense.
But it leaves the health and safety of thousands of Kentuckians at risk from decades of waste produced by the state's many coal-fired power plants.