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These landfills were exempt from stricter coal ash rules. Now EPA will review that decision

Coal ash landfills that were no longer in use in 2015 were exempt from stricter federal coal ash rules — including 21 landfills in Indiana. Now the Environmental Protection Agency will have to reconsider that move as part of a legal settlement.

The waste leftover from burning coal contains toxic heavy metals like mercury, cadmium and arsenic. Unlike coal ash ponds, the ash is dry when it’s placed into these landfills. But the group Earthjustice said the ash can still get wet when it rains or the water table rises — polluting groundwater and drinking water sources.

In August, Earthjustice filed suit on behalf of several groups against the EPA for failing to review its exemption for inactive coal ash landfills.

Donnita Scully is the environmental climate justice chair for the LaPorte County branch of the NAACP. Both her group and Just Transition NWI want the utility NIPSCO to clean up coal ash used as fill on the site of its Michigan City coal plant.

“What they say is that they remove everything that they're supposed to remove based upon the current rule now. So let's just be clear about it — we want them to remove 100 percent," said Scully.

Scully said African-American and lower-income residents in Michigan City have been disproportionately affected by the coal ash pollution.

READ MORE: Why those harmed by coal pollution need to be heard as coal plants shut down

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“If this loophole is closed, this is just a huge step where these sites will have to be monitored, they will have to be regulated," said Susan Thomas, legislative and policy director for Just Transition NWI.

The EPA has until May 5 to decide if inactive coal ash landfills should no longer be exempt from federal rules. If so, the agency will have a year to revise the rules.

Mychal Ozaeta is a senior associate attorney with Earthjustice. He said the data already shows that these inactive coal ash landfills are polluting the groundwater.

“We're hopeful and we're confident that if EPA does the review that's necessary, they'll have no choice but to revise the rule," he said.

Scully said she was pessimistic that the EPA would take action, but is pleased that the agency is taking the groups’ concerns seriously.

“I’m pleased that collaboration and cooperation and really just us banding together has gotten us some things done and so we’re hopeful that the EPA will be extremely responsive,” she said.

Rebecca is our energy and environment reporter. Contact her at or follow her on Twitter at @beckythiele.

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