Coal ash debate now moves to minefilling

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Ever since that disastrous late December coal-ash spill in Eastern Tennessee, Congressional attention has focused on one federal agency — the Environmental Protection Agency. But as lawmakers pressure the EPA to regulate coal ash — the often toxic solid waste generated by burning coal for electricity, and the focus of a new Center investigation — environmentalists are also nervously eyeing the draft of a proposed rule floated by the Interior Department — and praying it’ll forever fade.

The proposed rule, drawn up by the Interior Department’s Office of Surface Mining, Reclamation and Enforcement, and circulated to interest groups by the office itself, would establish national standards for the controversial practice of “minefilling,” or placing coal ash in active and abandoned mines. In the 92-page document, a copy of which was obtained by PaperTrail, the office lays out provisions under the federal surface-mining law that would govern minefill sites, as well as new requirements for their permitting. The office writes, “We intend for these regulations to minimize the possibility that placement of [coal ash] could cause adverse impacts on public health and the environment.”

But that’s not how environmentalists see it. When word of the draft proposed rule first surfaced in late December, 40 groups signed onto a 10-page letter addressed to then-President-Elect Obama that called the draft “egregiously irresponsible” and urged the incoming administration to “send the rule back to OSM.” As it stands, they wrote, “The proposed Office of Surface Mining rule would turn the nation’s coal mines into massive open dumps for non-mine generated industrial waste.” They are particularly concerned because, in their view, the rule would allow coal ash to seep into groundwater.

John Craynon, the office’s chief of regulatory support (a career position, not a political appointment), disputes the environmental groups’ characterization of the proposed rule. “We feel it addresses the concerns of the National Academy of Sciences,” he told Papertrail, referring to the Academy’s July 2006 report on minefilling. The draft reflects, in his words, “all the recommendations and all the comments on all sides of the issue.”

In recent weeks, after the White House Office of Management and Budget held the proposed rule’s review because of the change in administration, Craynon has circulated copies of it among industry and environmental groups alike. “The previous director of the bureau decided that it was a good thing,” he explains, although he stresses that the draft doesn’t necessarily represent the office’s preference today. “All I can say is that it was where we were headed before the change in administration.”

Whether Obama appointees heed the environmentalists’ desire to scratch the proposed rule altogether is anyone’s guess. Craynon says it can take months to fill his office’s directorship. “We’ll be using this draft as a starting point to discuss the issue with the new folks in charge,” he says.

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