(Reuters) - A coalition of environmental groups filed a lawsuit on Thursday to force the Obama administration to finalize new rules regulating the containment and disposal of coal ash, a power plant byproduct activists say threatens public health.
Earthjustice, the Sierra Club, the Environmental Integrity Project, and several other groups want the Environmental Protection Agency to finalize coal ash standards the agency proposed after a massive and expensive 2008 spill.
"It is well past time the EPA acts on promises made years ago to protect the nation from coal ash contamination and life-threatening coal ash ponds," Earthjustice attorney Lisa Evans said in a statement. The groups filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.
The EPA proposed regulating coal ash, or byproducts of coal combustion in power plants, in 2010, after a spill at a storage site at a Tennessee Valley Authority power plant.
The 2008 accident caused a flood of sludge for which cleanup was estimated to cost more than $1 billion.
Environmental groups way coal ash disposal can lead to groundwater contamination from improperly built storage ponds and landfills. The EPA has said contaminants such as mercury, arsenic and cadmium in coal ash could cause cancer if they get into the water supply.
Earthjustice last week released data obtained from the EPA that shows previously unknown instances of contaminated groundwater at 29 U.S. power plants. The report shows arsenic, lead and other pollutants in water near the coal-fired plants.
"When plants are monitoring they're generally, much more often than not, finding the contamination," Evans said. "Which then, of course, begs the question of, why aren't there federal protections to stop this contamination?"
The EPA did not respond to requests for comment.
The Obama administration is going into a tough election year fighting accusations that its regulations will stifle business in a struggling economy. Republicans in Congress have attacked the EPA in particular, accusing it of a war on coal-fired power plants due to new emissions rules.
The agency proposed two versions of the coal ash rules. One would be tougher on existing facilities; both versions would require liners and groundwater monitoring at new storage sites.
The final rules are expected sometime this summer, but Evans said the EPA needs to set a hard deadline to finish.
Lawmakers from both parties have criticized the proposed changes. Some say regulating coal ash would stifle industries that use recycled waste. In a letter to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson in 2010, 35 senators argued the proposal would place unfair burdens on utilities and could cost jobs.
The U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill in October that would hand the responsibility for regulating coal ash disposal to the states. A bipartisan group of senators backed the bill, but it has not gained much attention since.
Reporting By Emily Stephenson; Editing by David Gregorio