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Judge Directs EPA To Cough Up A Timeline For Finalizing Coal Ash Rules

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Machines work near the Tennessee Valley Authority Power Plant in Kingston, Tennessee, U.S., on Thursday, Oct. 27, 2011. On Tuesday, a federal judge ordered the EPA to come up wiht a timeline for finalizing rules produced after the Tennessee spill. Wade Payne/Bloomberg via Getty Images | Getty

WASHINGTON -- A federal judge has called on the Environmental Protection Agency to come up with a plan for finalizing federal regulations on coal ash that have been stalled for four years.

The EPA started working on new regulations for coal ash disposal after a dam ruptured at a coal ash impoundment in Tennessee in December 2008, spilling 1.1 billion gallons of coal slurry.

Coal ash is the dust-like material left behind when coal is burned to generate electricity. Power plants create more than 130 million tons of this ash per year, and much of it is mixed with water and left in containment ponds like the one that burst in Tennessee.

The slurry contains toxic substances like arsenic, mercury and lead, but disposal of the waste has been largely unregulated. The EPA proposed draft rules in October 2009. The rules went to the White House Office of Management and Budget and came back seven months later with some alternatives for the EPA to consider -- the original rules the agency drafted and a weaker version that would leave most of the regulation up to the states. The EPA hasn't made any movement to finalize either of those options since.

A group of environmental organizations, led by Earthjustice, filed suit last year to force the EPA to move on the rules. On Tuesday, a judge in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia issued a memorandum directing the agency to come up with a deadline for finalizing the rules within the next 60 days.

The groups announced the judge's directive in a press release.

"The decision by this federal court to put the EPA on a schedule for finalizing federal coal ash regulations is a victory for the communities and neighborhoods living next to these toxic sites," they said. "Federal protection is long overdue."

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