The best business decisions are rarely made in an environment of uncertainty and elevated risk. For owners and operators of coal-fired power plants, dealing with federal Coal Combustion Residual management (CCR management) regulations is creating just such a situation. Between compliance dates that have already passed, other important dates pending, and motions for regulation changes being considered, some utilities are only now preparing to deal with changes that have become very real.

The situation may seem overwhelming, but it’s not too late to begin planning the best course of action. Enhancing your understanding of your facility and addressing potential compliance issues now are worthwhile efforts to keep spending and risks in check.

Unique Uncertainty

CCR regulations present a unique situation for utilities in several ways. While the introduction of most new laws and regulations result in a period of doubt, the enforcement framework in which they are implemented is similar. Federal CCR rules are an exception.

The CCR regulations are built on a self-implementing regulatory approach for utilities to achieve and maintain compliance. This may work well for proactive utilities who are familiar with monitoring, managing groundwater protection standards (GPS) exceedances, and planning for corrective measures. However, risk management and financial planning approaches vary widely in the utility industry. For many other power utilities, voluntary action and self-regulation may be costly and unfavorable.

Compliance risks and potential financial liabilities are heightened because federal CCR rules are enforced through private legal action. While this may shift to a more established framework of state regulated facility compliance, it is far from certain when or if this approach will be adopted in individual states.

Even for the most proactive of utility owners and operators, the regulatory uncertainty, financial liabilities and threat of litigation remain difficult to quantify.

Prioritize Actions

According to current CCR regulations, unlined surface impoundment groundwater monitoring results demonstrating a GPS exceedance require closure and the development and evaluation of corrective measures within a relatively short timeframe. Under these compressed timelines, utilities must engage in a complicated decision-making process to determine how operations will be affected when corrective action is required, and impoundment closure is imminent. Because of the self-implementing framework, choices are made, and potentially costly actions are taken without the feedback or approval from regulators along the way.

Since the potential nature and timing of changes to CCR rules are uncertain, utilities should focus on developing plans that meet current requirements, as well as their specific business objectives. Acting now provides owners and operators the time needed to develop and implement a sound decision-making process that can help contain costs, manage impacts to facility operations and expedite a solution.

Integrated Planning

Don’t underestimate the monetary, operational and time impacts from CCR compliance. Developing a strategic plan now, no matter where a utility is in the process, is a worthy investment that will identify potential problems and map out solutions.

While every facility is unique in terms of operations and site conditions, and many are using multiple contractors and consultants for projects, the best plan of action is to stay ahead of current CCR requirements. A cohesive, predefined strategy helps to deliver efficient results.

Utility owners should develop an integrated groundwater management strategy that guides all activities impacted by monitoring results. Evaluating the entire site to recognize areas of opportunity and threat, this integrated strategy should consider:

  • Alternative source demonstration evaluations
  • Supplemental site characterization
  • Conceptual site model refinement
  • Screening viable interim corrective measurement
  • Education of key personnel about groundwater complexities and corrective action requirements

Groundwater management not only affects operations today but for decades beyond closure. Utilities require a sound plan to navigate to compliance, no matter how uncertain the environment seems today.

With nearly 25 years of diverse experience, Wayne Weber, a veteran environmental engineer and hydrogeologist at Burns & McDonnell, has designed, constructed and managed the operation, monitoring and maintenance of major remediation systems in nine states. Additionally, he has planned and implemented site investigations to characterize soil, groundwater, surface water and sediment conditions at a variety of facilities.