ARIZONA, USA — Governor Doug Ducey has signed into law a plan that would make Arizona, not the federal government, solely responsible for implementing a program meant to keep power companies honest. Specifically, the program ensures utilities properly dispose of toxic ash from coal power plants.
AZDEQ already regulating aspects of coal ash
But not everyone believes the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality is equipped to be in charge of this niche aspect of environmental health. During legislative hearings on the bill, some Democrats and environmental advocates said the program should remain with the EPA.
“Our biggest concern is that the state is a little too cozy with the utilities and those are the entities they would be regulating relative to this program,” said Sandy Bahr, Director of the Sierra Club Grand Canyon Chapter.
AZDEQ Director Misael Cabrera says the state is already enforcing aspects of coal waste disposal and that its program would be more stringent than the one currently employed by the EPA.
“It is true that the utilities have let it be known that they would prefer for the state of Arizona who has already been regulating them for three decades on this issue, that they would like Arizona to continue regulation on this issue,” Cabrera said.
The state will still need to apply to the EPA for permission to implement its own program.
Audit critical of AZDEQ’s water record
Arizona has four operating coal plants in three counties. Coal-fired power plants not only cause dirty air and greenhouse gas emissions but they leave behind the dusty substance known as coal ash. The ash contains contaminants like mercury, cadmium, and arsenic.
Without proper management, coal ash can pollute waterways, drinking water, and air. It is typically disposed of in landfills and self-contained ponds. It can also be used in building materials.
Bahr says environmental advocates are also concerned about AZDEQ’s track record on water regulation.
“The agency is taking on another program at a time they are not implementing the programs they already have,” Bahr said.
According to a 2021 Arizona Auditor General report: “(The) Department has not developed all required aquifer water quality standards, conducted key ongoing groundwater monitoring… monitored for agricultural pesticides in groundwater… limiting its ability to keep these waters safe from pollution.”
“We respect the Auditor General’s findings,” Cabrera said. “But it’s important to understand that all of their programmatic findings were self-disclosed by us.”
Cabrera said the department has made dramatic improvements in recent years to ensure more than 99% of Arizonans are drinking what federal standards dictate as healthy water, compared to 75% in 2015.
Will the Arizona legislature approve additional AZDEQ funds?
Cabrera’s department has requested $12.9 million of new funding from the state legislature to address findings in the Auditor General’s report and $382,000 to fund the Coal Combustion Residual Program.
The governor’s budget includes new funding for both priorities, Cabrera said. However, there is no indication yet that the Arizona legislature will allocate the funds in its budget.
Asked how AZDEQ will be impacted if the legislature does not boost funding, Cabrera acknowledged it won’t be easy.
“It will be difficult for us to implement all the recommendations from the Auditor General and it will be difficult for us to implement the coal combustion residuals program,” Cabrera said.
12 News contacted Republican State Senator Sine Kerr, Chair of the Natural Resources, Energy and Water Committee, and Republican State Senator David Gowan, Chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, to ask them whether they supported the request for funds from AZDEQ.
In a joint statement, the senators said they are still reviewing AZDEQ’s request as they craft a budget.
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