Ash Time Goes By, Part 3

Guest Blog | September 4, 2013 | Coal, Energy Policy

This guest post is written by Michael Patoka of the Center for Progressive Reform, and was originally entitled “Ash Time Goes By: Administration Continues Foot-Dragging on Coal Ash Rule as Toxic Landfills and Ash Ponds Grow by 94 Million Tons Each Year” It is reposted here, with permission, as a three-part series.

While we all wait for EPA and the Administration to finalize coal ash regulations, communities across the Southeast are in danger of another Kingston-sized disaster.

Three years after it was proposed, the EPA’s coal ash rule remains at a virtual standstill. Even worse, the chance that effective national standards will come out of the process is dwindling.

The Obama Administration shied away from setting a deadline for the final rule in its newly released regulatory agenda. Instead, the EPA’s only new commitment was to issue a “notice of data availability” (its third one so far), highlighting information collected for another proposed rule on power-plant water discharges. The agency hinted that this information could lower the risk assessment for coal ash by an “order of magnitude,” which suggests that regulating it as a non-hazardous waste “would be adequate.” (No wonder the industries were celebrating an early victory.)

But if anything, the new data (some of which was released last year) actually show the problem to be much worse than previously imagined: identifying an additional 451 ponds and 56 landfills that the agency did not know about before, and reveal that at least 46 percent of ponds and 43 percent of landfills are unlined. The discovery that some of the new sites are “smaller,” as the EPA wrote, does not detract from the risks posed by the larger ones.

From a procedural standpoint alone, the EPA’s new notice has opened up a new round of comments—yet another opportunity for industry to minimize the dangers of coal ash and exaggerate the costs of safeguards—which will further delay the rulemaking process.

The rule on power-plant discharges may in fact solve a big part of the coal ash problem: several options would eliminate the use of wet ponds and require dry handling instead. But then again, the proposal also includes inadequate options that would allow plants to continue dumping ash in ponds—two of them cooked up by OIRA and given “preferred” status. Moreover, existing ponds would not be de-watered and closed unless power plants chose to do so under an incentive program, and the rule doesn’t address the dangers of dry landfills at all—those threats could only be effectively addressed in a strong coal ash rule. Given the connection between the two rules, it’s unlikely that the EPA will finalize the coal ash rule until it knows what approach it will take to the water-discharge rule, which has a deadline of May 2014.

Keeping One Eye On Congress

Of course, it’s game over if coal-state members of Congress manage to take the matter out of the EPA’s hands by declaring coal ash a non-hazardous waste. Several such bills have passed through the House already, but they have so far stalled in the Senate.

Proponents of the latest bill, which recently cleared the House, claim that it fixes the shortcomings of earlier ones, in an effort to make the bill more palatable to Senate Democrats. But as environmental groups and the Congressional Research Service have pointed out, the so-called fixes are superficial and misleading: the bill still fails to establish minimum national safeguards and leaves enforcement entirely up to the states, among other fatal flaws. Fortunately, it appears to be going nowhere fast in the Senate.

It took a highly publicized catastrophe to trigger the EPA’s rulemaking in the first place, but as the headlines waned, so too did the Administration’s commitment. Let’s hope it won’t take another, more deadly catastrophe to jog the Administration back into action.

Southern Alliance for Clean Energy encourages you to click here to send your message asking EPA to swiftly finalize a protective rule regulating coal ash as hazardous waste.

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