House Bill Would Block EPA Oversight of Coal Ash, Leave it to States

Washington – Next up for Republicans in the House of Representatives who are seeking to curb the role of the Environmental Protection Agency is a vote Friday on a bill that would give states the power to monitor the disposal of coal ash from power plants.

Coal ash contains arsenic, lead and many other toxic materials that can escape into the air or water if the material isn't properly contained. Coal ash, the general term for the material that's left behind when coal is burned, is one of the biggest industrial wastes in the nation. U.S. power plants produce 140 million tons of it every year.

If the bill became law, it would block the EPA from imposing a federal rule to regulate the coal ash in disposal sites as a hazardous substance. The EPA has proposed that, but it hasn't yet decided whether to follow through with it or opt for a state-based plan instead.

The bill would put the regulatory power in the hands of the states. It sets up a permit system for new coal-ash disposal sites under the Solid Waste Disposal Act. It also sets minimal federal standards and limits the EPA's role.

The bill's backers argued that the hazardous designation would make people shy away from using products made from recycled coal ash, such as concrete and wallboard, even though the ash that's bound up in these things isn't a hazard.

The bill is expected to pass the Republican-controlled House. It's already won the support of some Democrats.

The White House said it opposed the bill because the measure undermined the federal government's ability to make sure that the waste was disposed of in ways that protected human health and the environment. The statement, however, made no mention of plans for a veto if the bill clears the Senate.

The bill's sponsor, Rep. David McKinley, R-W.Va., said in an interview Thursday with McClatchy that he discovered that there were problems with the current disposal sites for coal ash.

“In the midst of trying to remove the stigma — fly ash (coal ash) being a hazardous material, which it's not — we got deeper and found there really are some problems with the management of the product that's not recycled,” he said.

The bill would tighten standards for new coal-ash disposal sites so that they're equal to or greater than those for municipal landfills, McKinley said. “I feel confident we've met the requirements.”

The EPA, however, said in an analysis of the bill that municipal waste landfills had a requirement to “protect human health and the environment,” but that the coal ash bill didn't use that standard. Without it, the EPA would have a hard time making the case that a state program was deficient, the analysis said, according to a summary released by Rep. Henry Waxman of California, the senior Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

The bill also would give state officials the authority to waive some requirements and would require the EPA to defer to them.

The Environmental Integrity Project, an advocacy group, said in a report Thursday that the legislation would allow new coal-ash landfills to be built that would leak up to five times more arsenic than the Safe Drinking Water Act allowed. It said the bill's standards also were too low for lead and three other toxic pollutants, and that the bill would allow states to waive its requirements for water protection.

“Coal ash dumps across the country are poisoning drinking water supplies at hundreds of sites,” Lisa Evans, an attorney for the environmental law firm Earthjustice, said in a statement. She said the bill “neuters the EPA's effort to establish the first-ever federal regulation for toxic coal ash.”

Supporters argued that the bill would save 316,000 jobs. They took that number from a study by a consulting company hired by the Utility Solid Waste Activities Group, a lobbying group that represents power companies opposed to federal regulation of coal ash.

However, Frank Ackerman, an economist for the Stockholm Environment Institute's U.S. Center at Tufts University, said the study overcalculated the effects of a small increase in electricity rates and the alleged stigma of a hazardous waste. Ackerman instead calculated an increase of 28,000 jobs with EPA regulation of coal ash as hazardous waste.

© 2011 McClatchy-Tribune Information Services