Revised Coal Ash Bill Gives EPA an Oversight Role

(Energy 06-11-2013) A bill to clarify the oversight of coal ash is dusting itself off now that a compromise bill has cleared a key congressional House panel. The measure would give the states control over regulating the coal combustion byproduct but would do so with input from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The debate here has been fomenting since 2010 and especially after a dam burst 40 miles outside of Knoxville, Tennessee and 5.4 million cubic yards of the material spilled over into neighborhoods and waterways. The central question is whether federal environmental regulators would change the status of coal ash from being a “solid waste” to a “hazardous waste.”

The differences are profound: As a solid waste, coal ash can now be recycled and be used in such things as cement and dry wall. But if the status should change and become a hazardous waste, it would theoretically stigmatize that byproduct. That would dry up secondary markets, which would also increase the amount of refuse that must be handled and dispensed.

The legislation, introduced by Rep. David McKinley, R-W.Va., passed the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on the Environment and the Economy on a voice vote. It now goes to the full committee before it would be considered on the House floor. It would be expected to pass that body, just as it did in 2011.

The key, though, is getting it through the U.S. Senate, which said two years ago that the EPA must have a voice in this process. Indeed, the standards incorporated by the various utilities at the state level can be diverse. For example, coal ash is now discarded as a liquid that goes into large surface impoundments or as a solid that is placed into landfills. EPA would like to see all such byproducts converted from “wet ash” to “dry ash” and buried in secured liners.

“Given that there is a consensus about the beneficial re-use of the 40 percent portion that is recycled, the argument has been on how to handle and dispose of the remaining 60 percent,” says Rep. McKinley. “Thanks to the negotiations held with the states and stakeholders, we’ve done a thorough job of addressing that issue under this legislation.”

Deadlines Passing

EPA has been under pressure to resolve this issue, with previous deadlines passing. Now, it is expected to give its decision in 2014 -- unless Congress steps in and devises legislation. Industry wants the House bill to be enacted while environmentalists are opposed to it, saying that EPA could rule coal ash a hazardous waste but still allow it to be recycled.

Coal-burning power plants consume 1 billion tons of coal each year, says Earth Justice. That equates to the production of 140 million tons of coal in the form of fly ash, bottom ash, scrubber sludge and boiler slag. About 200 coal ash impoundments are now in existence. 

EPA has already noted that 49 coal ash sites in 12 states have “high hazard” potential if they should fail. It also identified 71 other sites that it says are responsible for the leakage of heavy metals into the ground water. “Although it was thought to be relatively innocuous for many years, we now know that coal ash leaches arsenic, selenium, and other hazardous materials into water,” says the West Virginia Sierra Club.

That argument carries resonance among many Democrats on Capitol Hill, who say that it would not prevent the kind of accident that occurred in the territories of the Tennessee Valley Authority close to five years ago. The ranking member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., says that the revised coal ash measure would have “little substantive effect.”

Consider, though, that about 40 percent of all coal ash is recycled. Any attempt to reclassify that byproduct as a hazardous waste would stigmatize it, making it more likely that it would pile up in pools and landfills, and less probable that it would re-used, says the Edison Electric Institute.

The institute adds that Congress, not the EPA, is best suited to regulate coal ash. Further, assigning a hazardous waste label to coal ash would impose compliance costs totaling between $78 billion and $100 billion over 20 years. That would jeopardize the operation of coal-based power plants and threaten jobs, it says.

While the coal industry has been humbled since the presidential election, it still has some oomph: Its main point is valid, which is that any change in the current status of coal ash would harm its secondary use. That potential outcome is giving the Obama administration pause, which just might tilt the congressional playing field and allow the revised bill a chance to pass.
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