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House to Vote on Effort to Preempt EPA Regulation of Coal Ash

by Sara Jerving

The U.S. House of Representatives will vote Thursday on a measure to urge the Transportation Conference Committee to strip the U.S. Environmental Protections Agency (EPA) of the ability to designate toxic coal ash as a hazardous waste. This spring, the House approved H.R. 4348, the Surface and Transportation Extension Act of 2012.  In this bill the House included an amendment by West Virginia Republican Representative David McKinley, that would prohibit the EPA from ever setting federally enforceable safeguards for the disposal of toxic coal ash. Now McKinley and the coal lobby are fighting to keep his amendment from being stripped out during House-Senate conference committee negotiations.

Site of the TVA Coal Ash Disaster more than Three Years LaterSite of the TVA coal ash disaster more than three years later (photo: Appalachian Voices)

According to the EPA, the waste from coal burning plants contains concentrations of arsenic, boron, cadmium, chromium, lead, mercury, and other metals that has been known to seep into ground water supplies. Thursday marks the two year anniversary of when the EPA first proposed minimum safeguards for coal ash disposal.

As reported by the Center for Media and Democracy, McKinley’s amendments reflect a resolution by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) -- an organization that brings together corporations and right-wing state legislators to vote on cookie cutter "model" legislation behind closed doors. Negative publicity about ALEC's extreme agenda in recent months has resulted in the departure of 19 major American corporations, including WalMart, and over 50 state legislators. ALEC has a multi-pronged approach, including providing talking points on coal ash to legislators, to reports and PR campaigns geared towards weakening the EPA. 

McKinley, who's top campaign donors are from the coal industry, called opposition to his bill a battle in the larger "war on coal" during a hearing on the provision on Wednesday, while Massachusetts Representative Ed Markey said that the bill's efforts to weaken environmental standards would launch the U.S. into an "era of Charles Dickens."

Coal Ash, The EPA, and Those Impacted 

The EPA is amidst a two-year evaluation on whether to classify coal ash as a hazardous waste. The EPA affirmed that toxins in the ash can seep into the ground and reach drinking water sources. The Environmental Integrity Project (EIP) recently found that groundwater at 33 coal ash waste sites across the country were contaminated with levels of toxins that may violate a federal dumping ban. According to EarthJustice, a non-profit environmental law firm, people living near unlined coal ash ponds have a 1 in 50 chance of developing cancer -- more than 2,000 times what the EPA considers acceptable. Toxins found in coal ash have been linked to organ disease, respiratory illness, neurological damage, as well as developmental issues. Despite documented hazards, coal ash is still considered a municipal solid waste, in the same ranking as household trash. U.S. power plants produce over 400,000 tons of toxic coal ash per day. 

Coal ash came under increased scrutiny after a 2008 spill in Tennessee, which left some 300 acres of land covered in 1.1 billion gallons of the sludge. During the clean up, some three million tons of the waste where removed from the largely white community that had endured the initial disaster, and dumped on a community in Perry County, Alabama which is 90 percent African American and forty-five percent of the residents live below the poverty line. Fifty-four of the county’s residents filed a civil rights complaint with the Alabama Department of Environmental Management for recourse. The EPA announced on June 14 that it will investigate the complaint. Last year, a power plant collapsed in Milwaukee, WI sending 200 dump trucks worth of coal ash into Lake Michigan, which serves as a primary source of water for millions. 

Illinois Representative Bobby Rush argued at Wednesday's debate on the amendment that those in favor of the provision want "the American people to think that fly ash is as healthy to them as can be. That they can go to their local drug store and ask for a bottle of fly ash to sprinkle on their dinner meal like salad dressing.... this bill will take advantage of some of the most vulnerable communities in America."

ALEC Resolution Does Bidding of Coal Companies

ALEC passed a resolution in early 2010 that supports a decade-old "EPA determination that coal combustion residuals do not warrant federal regulation as hazardous waste and concludes that states are best positioned to serve as the principal regulatory authority for CCRs as non-hazardous waste." In various degrees, including with coal ash, House Majority Leader and ALEC alumnus Eric Cantor has worked to push ALEC's agenda at the federal level. As previously reported by CMD, Cantor and other ALEC alums in Congress have had their campaign coffers padded generously by ALEC corporations. 

ALEC’s latest report on the EPA: “Economy Derailed: State-By-State Impacts of the EPA Regulatory Train Wreck” reiterates ALEC’s commitment to deregulation of coal ash saying that an EPA designation would have “significant consequences for electricity generation and the robust recycling industry in the United States” -- toxic coal ash is used in consumer products like kitchen cabinets, wallboard products and bowling balls. Those in opposition to the bill have argued that efforts are not to prevent the recycling of coal ash, but to ensure that proper regulations are in place so that it does not seep into water supplies and contaminate air. 

Not surprisingly, ALEC funders include a number of coal companies, including Peabody Energy, which is the largest private-sector coal company in the world. 

Environmental Groups Urge Action

Environmental watchdog groups like Earth Justice and Clean Water Action are asking citizens to reach out to their Representatives to oppose the amendment. Clean Water Action is launching a Twitter Blitz Thursday, asking people to use the hashtag #KickCoalAsh when urging Congressional members to protect communities from coal ash.

The transportation bill has been under negotiation for over a month. The funding authorization for road, bridge and rail transit projects expires at the end of June. Without the passage of a comprehensive bill, Congressional leaders are expected to seek a temporary extension of transportation programs, which could also include the coal ash provision. 

Virginia Representative Jim Moran argued at Wednesday's hearing that McKinley's amendment has "nothing to do with transportation, but puts those living downstream of coal ash ponds in real danger."

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