The Environmental Protection Agency has been weighing several regulatory options for dealing with coal ash, the toxic remnants left behind in the process of burning coal in our nation's power plants. The new regulations have been delayed for months now, and there's a good deal of concern that the agency may bow to pressure from industry groups to set a weaker standard. But if House Republicans get their way, the EPA won't set new rules for coal ash disposal at all.
Among the many anti-environmental provisions in the spending bill that the House passed early Saturday morning was a provision blocking the EPA from finalizing a coal ash rule, sponsored by Reps. David McKinley (R-W.Va.) and Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.). As the Center for Public Integrity reports, both lawmakers have been heavily backed by utilities.
The EPA was already under a great deal of pressure to issue a weak rule on coal ash, the stuff captured by scrubbers because we have deemed it too hazardous to emit into the air. The agency proposed a tough rule in October 2009 that would have designated the waste as toxic, but when the rule emerged from the White House Office of Management and Budget last May a much weaker option was also on the table. The administration has faced a good deal of pressure from utilities and the coal-ash recycling industry to adopt the weaker option in setting a final rule.
Right now, utilities are allowed to dump the ash into vast open pits. The EPA signaled its plans to regulate the waste in December 2008, after an earthen dike containing 1.1 billion gallons of the sludge ruptured at the Tennessee Valley Authority's Kingston Fossil Plant in Harriman, Tennessee. But if House Republicans get their way, nothing will change—leaving a number of communities around the country in harm's way. The Environmental Integrity Project has identified 137 sites where toxic materials from coal ash have leached into the groundwater, and the EPA has labeled 49 dump sites "high hazard."
The House-passed continuing resolution would also bar the EPA from regulating greenhouse gas emissions and slash the agency's budget by a third.