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Republicans Approve Regulation-Blocking Coal Bill on ALEC’s Wish List

High-resolution aerial survey photograph of the fly-ash sludge spill that resulted in December 2008 when a dike failed at the Kingston, Tennessee, power plant. Over a billion gallons of toxic sludge flowed into the Clinch and Emory rivers. The facility is operated by the Tennessee Valley Authority. Environmentalists have asked the EPA to regulate coal ash since the disaster. (Photo: Tennessee Valley Authority / SkyTruth)

House Republicans who have received hefty campaign contributions from coal and electric power companies approved coal legislation supported by the industry and super-lobby group the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).

The House Energy and Commerce Committee voted to approve legislation on July 13 that would prevent the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from regulating toxic coal ash wastes from electric power plants and delay the implementation of air quality rules. The Republican-controlled House is expected to pass the bills.

Rep. David McKinley (R-West Virginia) introduced the bill that would block the EPA from regulating coal ash

powder and sludge as a hazardous waste and give state agencies authority to further loosen regulations.

McKinley's bill would please members of ALEC, the super-lobby group funded by Peabody Coal, Koch Industries, and others that promotes conservative agendas by supplying state legislators with model bills and resolutions. Last week, the Center for Media and Democracy released 800 pieces of ALEC model legislation, including a resolution opposing any federal regulation of coal ash waste.

Environmentalists have asked the EPA to regulate coal ash since the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) disaster. In late 2008, a massive coal ash reservoir in Harriman, Tennessee, burst open and spilled more than one billion gallons of heavy-metal laden coal sludge across 300 acres of waterways and private property.

The EPA has since made two proposals to regulate coal ash disposal and storage and the first proposal would regulate coal ash as a hazardous waste. Coal ash is currently considered a municipal solid waste, just like batteries, refrigerators, paint, and other types of household trash.

Both the ALEC resolution and McKinley's bill rely on a 2000 EPA decision that determined coal ash to be a nonhazardous waste.

Scott Slesinger, the legislative director of the Natural Resources Defense Council, told Truthout that contamination incidents during the past decade show that state agencies have been unable to adequately regulate coal ash disposal sites.

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“The EPA has learned things since 2000, that the tests they were using on leaching understated the problem and there clearly is a problem,” Slesinger said.

Researchers with the Environmental Integrity Project (EIP) recently found that groundwater at 33 coal ash disposal sites in 19 states were contaminated with toxic pollutants at levels that may violate a federal dumping ban.

Coal ash from electric power plants is often mixed with water, creating sludge that can contain poisonous pollutants such as lead, chromium, mercury and arsenic. The roughly 130 million tons of contaminated coal ash produced by American power plants each year is contained in 431 different impoundments and landfills across the country, and the EPA has identified 49 such sites as “high hazard” because of their proximity to populated residential areas.

McKinley said his legislation would save money and jobs, protect public health and “remove the stigma of this byproduct as being hazardous.” Environmentalists, however, point out that he has received $200,000 in contributions from mining and electrical power interests so far this year. More than a third of the money came from corporate or individual donations from four coal companies, according to an EIP report.

In 2009 and 2010, McKinley's campaign committee received $7,000 from the Patriot Coal Corp. and $6,800 from Massey Energy Corp., according to political spending watchdog site Massey Energy is known for widespread use of mountaintop removal coal mining and a 2010 mine blowout that killed 29 miners.

In all, coal and electric power companies have given $476,928 so far this year to members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, according to the EIP.

Electric utility companies were the top contributors to committee Chairman Fred Upton's (R-Michigan) campaign committee in 2010, contributing a total of $189,600. Upton has received $96,650 in contributions from mining and electrical power interests so far this year.

Upton co-sponsored the TRAIN act, which the House Energy Committee passed on July 13 along with the coal ash legislation. The TRAIN act requires the Obama administration to create a committee to analyze the economic impacts of new EPA air quality standards for coal burning power plants.

The TRAIN act would delay new EPA rules for power plants that could lower emissions of harmful pollutants.

The TRAIN act is similar to a piece of ALEC model legislation that would require an Economic Impact Statement for new state environmental regulations. It's unclear if the ALEC model inspired the TRAIN act or if the legislation simply reflects a broader effort to roll back environmental regulations.

ALEC supports a variety of deregulation initiatives, including preventing the EPA from regulating greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act.

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