Coal Lobbyists Wooed White House Staff to Influence Coal Ash Regulations Long Before Public Hearings

While the final EPA hearing is happening today in Tennessee to solicit public input on federal proposals to regulate toxic coal ash, a new report [PDF] from DeSmogBlog and PolluterWatch shows that coal industry lobbyists held dozens of secretive meetings with the White House to peddle their influence long before the Obama administration opened the process to the public.

The coal industry’s influence on the process was largely peddled behind the scenes, beginning over a year ago, when lobbyists representing coal ash producers and users started swarming the White House to protect the coal industry from full responsibility for the potential health and water threats posed by coal ash waste.  

The lobbyists’ ability to quickly and easily gain access and influence over the White House’s review of this critical environmental regulation calls into serious question President Obama’s campaign pledge to limit the role of lobbyists in federal decision-making.

Between October 2009 and April 2010, coal industry representatives held at least 33 meetings with White House staff on the coal ash issue, almost three times as many meetings as environmentalists and university scientists were granted on the subject. 

At the time the lobbying spree began last fall, the industry was facing a fast-tracked effort by the Environmental Protection Agency to finally classify coal ash as hazardous waste, a much-needed designation since the ash - laden with heavy metals like arsenic, lead, mercury, cadmium and a host of other radioactive and dangerous substances – threatens water supplies and human health in communities nationwide. 

The Obama White House seems to have been more than happy to accommodate the massive lobbying blitz, which achieved in short order exactly what the industry wanted by delaying federal regulation of coal ash waste indefinitely.  

The result was that EPA was forced to issue two proposals for public comment – one much more favorable to the industry - undercutting EPA’s authority to regulate coal ash based on solid science alone. 

Despite overwhelming evidence that existing state regulations are failing to protect the public, polluter politics has once again prevailed, revealing the Obama White House to be as easily manipulated by industry lobbyists as any prior administration.

EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson’s original proposal drew instant criticism from the coal industry, and polluter lobbyists quickly began booking meetings with the White House to raise objections.  They focused their attention on the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA), an arm of the White House Office of Management and Budget that reviews draft agency rules. 

Overseen by President Obama's regulatory czar, Cass Sunstein, OIRA is a favorite industry target to gum up the federal regulatory process because it is charged with reviewing proposed environmental rules based on multiple economic and political considerations, not strictly science.  OIRA is known to regularly solicit industry input in its review process.  The power of the OIRA was well demonstrated during the Bush administration when former OIRA head John Graham derailed dozens of environmental regulations at the behest of polluting industries.  

In the case of coal ash, White House staff held at least 33 meetings with coal ash lobbyists in the past year, calling into question the coal industry’s “undue influence” over the government’s deliberative process. 

Read the full report [PDF] detailing the coal industry lobbying blitz, and check out Greenpeace’s new spreadsheet of coal ash threats [PDF] sorted by company.