Coal ash legislation introduced in House

Following last month's major coal-ash spill in Harriman, Tennesse, a West Virginia lawmaker has introduced legislation to set federal standards for storing the toxic waste produced by burning coal.

AP Photo/Knoxville News Sentinel, J. Miles Cary/FILE
A home in Harriman, Tenn., sits in ruins after a retention pond wall collapsed on Dec. 22, 2008, releasing a mixture of water and ash that flooded 15 homes nearby. The 40-acre pond was used by the Tennessee Valley Authority as a containment area for ash generated by the coal-burning Kingston Steam Plant.

Following last month's major coal-ash spill in Harriman, Tennesse, a West Virginia lawmaker has introduced legislation to set federal standards for storing the toxic waste produced by burning coal.

Introduced in the House by Democrat Nick Rahall, the Coal Ash Reclamation and Environmental Safety Act of 2009 would impose design, engineering, and performance standards on all surface impoundments that are constructed to hold coal ash, a mixture of water and fly ash that contains poisonous elements.

No federal standards currently exist, an absence that Rep. Rahall said in a press release was responsible for the collapse of an impoundment wall that resulted in more than a billion gallons of coal ash slurry spilling over more than 300 acres in Harriman, Tenn.:

"It is impossible to write off the disaster in Tennessee as a freak accident. The absence of national standards for coal ash has resulted in environmental damage and threats to human health throughout the country - not just last month, or last year, but for decades, and as far as we know this may be just the tip of the iceberg," Rahall said.

As the Monitor's Mark Clayton reported last week, there are hundreds of such ponds of coal-ash slurry nationwide. Many are leaching toxic metals into groundwater, and many others have walls that are thought to be degrading.

The Washington Post's Juliet Elperin explains how, even though the many in government have viewed coal ash as potentially toxic for almost three decades, no action has yet been taken to regulate it at the federal level:

Congress initially raised the prospect of regulating coal ash as a hazardous waste in 1980, but regulators moved slowly until March 2000, when the Environmental Protection Agency said it planned to designate it a "contingent hazardous waste." After electric utilities protested that such a move would cost billions, however, then-EPA administrator Carol M. Browner reversed herself and determined that coal ash amounted to a solid waste. The agency pledged to issue regulations on the matter nonetheless, but it failed to do so in the eight years since President Bush took office.

But that could change, even without Rahall's bill. The Associated Press reports that, during her Senate confirmation hearing Wednesday, Lisa Jackson, Obama's pick for EPA chief, said that she would immediately assess the hundreds of coal-ash disposal sites to determine if her agency needs to issue regulations.

Pressure to regulate coal waste is also coming from ordinary citizens. On Friday, according to a press release emailed by the PR firm Kelley Campaigns, Harriman residents Sarah McCoin and Tom Gizzard arrived on Capitol Hill with mason jars containing some of the sludge that had befouled their town. The press release notes that they have met with Sen. Lamar Alexander, Rep. Lincoln Davis, and five members of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee staff.

The pair also handed out black hats, reading "Filthy Coal," a play on the white "Clean Coal" caps – handed out by coal industry representatives – that were ubiquitous at events during the 2008 presidental campaign. The two said that there is no such thing as clean coal.

Also calling for regulation is Erin Brockovitch, the legal clerk who famously compiled evidence that a Pacific Electric & Gas facility had sickened nearby residents. Writing in the Huffington Post, a liberal news and opinion website, Ms. Brockovitch writes:

The infrastructure handling coal fly ash in the U.S. is old and needs to be replaced. Can we worry about the cost of replacing the old with the new when health and safety and the environment depends on it? We can see that contamination moves through air, land and water. Can we sit back and wait for communities to get sick when we can prevent it now?
Science usually lags behind the law. But in this case, law lags behind science because coal fly ash handling is not regulated as it should be. And we have a pretty good grasp on the fact that Coal Fly Ash is not healthy.
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