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Delay in coal ash regulation prompts protest from Ohio group

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An agitated citizen’s group met with White House officials on Monday to press for long-delayed action on the dangers of coal ash — an environmental hazard that was the subject of an investigation by the Center for Public Integrity last year.

The Center’s probe revealed the havoc that coal ash has wreaked on the environment and human health nationwide — near ponds, landfills, and pits where coal ash gets dumped — while debate over federal regulations dragged on for decades. That debate has flared again since the disastrous December 2008 coal-ash spill in Eastern Tennessee — a spill which led to an Environmental Protection Agency pledge to finally regulate the toxic waste.

But regulations still haven’t been issued, and that’s what brought members of Ohio Citizens Action to the White House — and, specifically, to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), which has been sitting on the EPA’s proposed coal-ash rule for six months now. On March 18, after reading news articles about the power industry’s lobbying on the issue, Rachel Belz of the Ohio group, whipped up a letter-writing campaign so that EPA and OMB officials would hear from citizens who live in the shadows of ash dumpsites. Those folks — from Ohio to Oklahoma, Pennsylvania to Indiana — invited officials to visit their neighborhoods and to see the pollution caused by coal ash firsthand. They have yet to receive a response. Rather than wait, Belz decided to escort three citizens to meet with EPA and OMB yesterday afternoon.

One of those citizens is John Walthen, of Uniontown, Alabama, where the coal ash from the spill in Tennessee, is being dumped. Every day, a 110-car train trucks the ash from Kingston, TN to a landfill built for garbage in Perry County. In his Coal Watch blog, Wathen has chronicled the contamination caused by the ash — the high arsenic levels in the groundwater, and the mountain of waste that clouds the sky. Walthen told the OMB and EPA officials that, in his words, “You cannot base your decision on 30 some meetings with the industry and one meeting with the citizens. That tells me that the citizens don’t matter.”

An OMB spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment from PaperTrail. According to the latest updates on the office’s website, OMB officials have held more than 40 meetings on the matter since the EPA sent a draft of its proposed rule for review in October. Utility lobbyists and other industry players have landed most meetings — roughly 30 — while environmental groups have had seven.

All this politicking seems remarkably reminiscent of the fierce inter-agency battle that took place in 2000, when the EPA appeared on the verge of proposing stricter federal controls under a “hazardous” designation for coal ash. To environmental advocates, the delay is frustrating, given that the EPA proposed rule is still just that — a proposal.

“We’re talking about giving the public a chance to comment on a proposal — that’s it,” says Jeff Stant, of the Environmental Integrity Project (EIP), one of the groups that have met with OMB officials on the EPA rule. “I don’t think OMB has given this kind of access to anyone in industry before a proposed rule is even unveiled.”

No one really knows what the EPA’s rule will say, of course. Yet evidence supporting a stricter rule like the one the agency had posited in 2000 seems to be mounting. On February 24, the EIP and Earthjustice released an analysis identifying another 31 ponds and landfills in 14 states where the ash’s heavy metals have polluted streams, wetlands, and aquifers. That’s on top of the sites that EPA has already identified.

EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson has said the proposed rule will be released this month, but advocates, like Belz, aren’t so sure. “Our message to [officials] is simple,” she says, “This is not an issue that is something you can put on the backburner.”

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