As the House of Representatives votes on an extension to its transportation bill Wednesday, environmental advocates are crying foul on an amendment that would strip the EPA of the ability to regulate toxic coal ash and hand it over to the states. The amendment passed in a voice vote with bipartisan support Wednesday afternoon. Critics say it is yet another industry giveaway in a measure that would also approve the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline and "streamline" environmental safeguards.
The amendment's sponsor, West Virginia Rep. David McKinley, a Republican, says it would prevent the EPA from imposing onerous new regulations on the disposal of coal ash, a toxic byproduct of coal power plants that can contain arsenic, mercury and lead. Coal ash is currently unregulated on the federal level, and McKinley's bill would prevent it from being treated even on par with household landfill waste.
"This is a must-pass bill, and this is something that the congressman has said is vital to the economy and keeping more than 316,000 jobs in the coal industry," said McKinley spokesman Jim Forbes.
The connection between coal ash and transportation, he added, is that the waste byproduct is sometimes recycled as a material in road construction.
But Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said the amendments stripping environmental protections will only make the bill harder to pass. President Barack Obama has issued a veto threat over the Keystone XL provision.
"Look what they've loaded it up," LaHood told attendees at a conference on Wednesday, according to The Hill. "Keystone; Coal ash. None of it has anything to do with transportation."
Environmental advocates also responded sharply to the idea that coal ash regulation and transportation are connected.
"This is definitely a bill to line industry's pocketbooks -- at least in the short term," said Lisa Evans, counsel to the coal industry watchdog group EarthJustice. In the long run, she argued, "eventually the companies have to pay the piper in terms of having to cleanup from the spill, from contamination. It's shortsighted."
As for the idea that the bill would protect recycling materials for the road-building industry, "that's total hogwash," said Evans. "It's a huge stretch. The bill does not directly deal with recycling, which is what the use of coal ash in concrete is. It really is a bill dealing with disposal, so I would say that the nexus is really flimsy."
The EPA first looked into regulating coal ash after a devastating coal ash slurry spill in Tennessee spread 1.1 billion gallons of toxic waste over 300 acres of surrounding land. Since then a number of smaller coal ash spills have occurred, repeatedly highlighting the lack of nationwide regulation. For nearly two years, the agency has been pondering two sets of regulation that would force companies to take coal ash disposal more seriously.
Both coal mining companies and power utilities have tried to put a stop to the EPA's regulations, fearing they could raise costs. Supporters of McKinley's amendment include the US Chamber of Commerce, the American Coal Council, the United Mine Workers, utility companies like Duke Energy, and the American Road & Transportation Builders Association.
"Supporters of a ‘hazardous waste’ designation for coal ash disposal like to say that higher disposal costs will lead to more recycling. This real world evidence – coupled with the growing list of people ceasing the use of coal ash – completely contradicts that simplistic argument,” American Coal Ash Association Executive Director Tom Adams said in a January press release criticizing the EPA.
Opposing organizations include the Sierra Club, Greenpeace, the League of Conservation Voters, and the Environmental Integrity Project. They say that under the guise of giving states "freedom," the amendment would really free polluters from being obligated to bring their coal ash dumps up to engineering code or have them inspected for leaks.
McKinley's amendment passed as a standalone bill with bipartisan support in October 2011, but the Democratic-controlled Senate has not held a vote on it. Attaching the coal ash amendment to the transportation bill extension, an essential measure that keeps hundreds of thousands of road-building contractors on the job, is seen as a means of forcing the Senate to take a closer look at it.
Even as McKinley pushes the coal ash amendment, residents in his own district who live near a massive coal ash impoundment say state-based regulation has failed them.
Curt Havens is a retired postal worker who lives in West Virginia's northern panhandle just a few thousand yards from the Little Blue Run impoundment, a more than 1,000-acre holding ground for coal ash waste from a FirstEnergy power plant that reflects an eerie blue-green color in satellite photos.
"His rules are guidelines for the states," Havens said. "It's not an enforceable federal rule. We worry about health and our safety, because the thing's right in our backyard."
Havens suspects the impoundment contributed to his own case of thyroid cancer years ago, and said only a few days ago his yard smelled like rotten eggs and sewage. Because Little Blue Run straddles the West Virginia and Pennsylvania borders, both states' environmental protection departments have authority over the impoundment -- but neither, he said, have responded adequately to his concerns.
"We shouldn't even have to be going through this stuff," he added.
But McKinley's spokesman said stripping EPA of the power to regulate coal ash "actually will make the areas like that safer because of state regulation." And he dismissed concerns about Little Blue Run, noting that in a letter about West Virginia test results, the EPA said, "the inorganic results of the soil sample are well below risk-based screening concentrations that EPA would use to investigate properties under our authorities." In the same letter, however, the EPA cautioned that the soil samples could not provide a complete assessment.