By Justin Wingerter

Oklahoma will become the first state in the nation to oversee coal ash disposal within its borders, the Environmental Protection Agency announced Monday, a decision that pleased utility companies and worried environmentalists.

"This historic announcement places oversight of coal ash disposal into the hands of those who are best positioned to oversee coal ash management: the officials who have intimate knowledge of the facilities and the environment in their state," said EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, a former Oklahoma attorney general.

The Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality has regulated coal ash for more than two decades under federal rules. It will now fully take over the permitting process, issue notices, assess penalties and suspend or revoke permits.

Coal ash, more formally known as coal combustion residuals, is a byproduct of burned coal. Under a 2015 law, states can take over enforcement if their regulations are as stringent or more stringent than federal regulations.

Environmentalists fear state control will allow polluters to dump it in ponds and landfills, further polluting nearby groundwater.

"A takeover by Oklahoma means that a bad situation will get a lot worse," said Lisa Evans, a former EPA official and an attorney at Earthjustice, an environmental group. "States are beginning to line up at Scott Pruitt's door to shield their toxic coal ash dumps from public health protections. Oklahoma is likely the first domino to fall in a series of states."

Earthjustice and the Environmental Integrity Project issued a report Monday alleging pollutants are in groundwater at Oklahoma's coal ash dumps. In Noble County, for example, boron and sulfate allegedly were found in groundwater at the Big Fork Ranch coal ash landfill.

"The serious water contamination from coal plants that happened right under the State of Oklahoma's nose is proof that they are not willing to protect their residents from toxic coal ash pollution," said Johnson Grimm-Bridgwater, director of the state chapter of the Sierra Club.

The EPA held a public comment meeting on the coal ash matter in February. DEQ officials urged the EPA to approve Oklahoma's request and environmentalists urged the EPA not to. Earl Hatley, co-founder of the LEAD Agency in northeast Oklahoma, testified then and said Monday that Oklahoma's plan was inadequate.

"These coal plant operators are flouting the state and federal rules, and the politicians are letting them get away with it," Hatley said.

An EPA news release announcing Pruitt's decision contained praise from several utility companies and industry groups. Stuart Solomon, president of Public Service Company of Oklahoma, said he appreciates the approval.

"We agree with EPA that state permitting programs, like Oklahoma's, are the most effective approach for coal ash management, and will ensure that all regulatory requirements will continue to be met," Solomon said in a statement.

The 2015 law that allowed for state permitting was the work of U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Tulsa, then the chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

(c)2018 The Oklahoman