Republicans score another symbolic defeat for EPA — this time over toxic coal ash

Lack of federal oversight of coal ash cleanup continues with recent House legislation

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This cove known as "Church Slough" in Harriman, Tenn., saw more than 5 million cubic yards of coal ash spewed from a nearby fossil plant.

Tennessee Valley Authority/AP

House Republicans on Friday succeeded in championing legislation that would wrest regulation of coal ash from the federal Environmental Protection Agency to the states, who will have the authority to regulate the often hazardous residue at power plants as if it were municipal garbage.

The Center for Public Integrity’s iWatch News has examined the lack of federal oversight of coal ash and its dangers. As iWatch News reported, coal ash is full of neurotoxins like lead and mercury and the carcinogens such as arsenic.

The vote on coal ash disposal was the latest of several passed by the GOP-controlled House that would shift authority away from the EPA and reduce federal regulations that Republicans say are burdensome, hamper economic growth and cost jobs.

Other bills have dealt with toxic emissions from power plants, cement plants and incinerators. Like those bills, the coal ash bill is unlikely to be considered in the Democratic-controlled Senate.

The White House, in a statement released Wednesday, opposed the House legislation, calling it “insufficient to address the risks associated with coal ash disposal and management.”

The administration specifically cited the 2008 failure of a coal ash impoundment in Kingston, Tenn. where more than five million cubic yards of coal ash were spilled, causing more than $1 billion in damages.

The Environmental Protection Agency is currently considering several options on how to regulate coal ash, from giving it a special status as a hazardous waste, so it could still be recycled, to classifying it as a solid waste, which comes with fewer requirements. The industry has said that even a solid waste classification would prompt the closure of some existing coal ash ponds and landfills, costing jobs and raising energy bills.

"The results of EPA's regulations would have been devastating on the effects of jobs, higher utility rates at home, and cripple a very successful emerging biproducts industry," said Rep. John Shimkus, R-Ill., chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee's environment and economy panel.

The bill allows the EPA to get involved if a state chooses not to act, or the agency finds the state program deficient. But the White House said it strongly opposed the bill, saying it was insufficient to address the risks of coal ash disposal, and undermined the federal government's ability to ensure requirements that adequately protect human health and the environment.

Without a minimum federal health standard, "the result will inevitably be uneven and inconsistent rules by the states; some states will do a good job, others will do a poor job. And when they do a poor job, the public will pay the price," said Rep. Henry Waxman of California, top Democrat on the Energy and Commerce Committee.

The EPA's role in coal ash increased after a 2008 spill from a disposal pond at a Tennessee Valley Authority power plant in Kingston, Tenn., flooded hundreds of acres of land, damaged homes, and killed fish in nearby rivers.

A federal survey conducted after the spill found the toxic leftovers of burning coal for power at nearly 600 sites in 35 states. Spills have occurred at 34 of those sites over the past decade, the agency said. Without federal guidelines, regulations of the ash disposal vary by state. Most sites lack liners and have no monitors to ensure that ash and its contents don't seep into underground aquifers.

Over the years, the volume of waste has grown as demand for electricity increased and the federal government clamped down on emissions from power plants.

In 2001, the EPA said it wanted to set a national standard for ponds or landfills used to dispose of wastes produced from burning coal.

Ash is produced in the burning of coal and is caught by scrubbers required to reduce emissions of sulfur dioxide.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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