Obama threatens to veto bill that would undermine EPA coal ash rule

Guest Blog | July 22, 2015 | Coal, Energy Policy

Today, the U.S. House of Representatives is scheduled to vote on H.R. 1734, a dangerous bill that threatens the health and safety of communities here in the Southeast and across the country. Rep. David McKinley’s (R-WV) deceptively-named “Improving Coal Combustion Residuals Regulation Act of 2015” actually undermines EPA’s recently published, federal minimum standards for coal ash disposal and handling. This bill is so dangerous that the Obama Administration yesterday issued a strong statement of opposition and warned, “If the President were presented with H.R. 1734 as drafted, his senior advisors would recommend that he veto the bill.”

EPA finalized its first-ever coal ash rule in December 2014. The agency took nearly 6 years to craft the rule, soliciting input from utilities, states, citizens, and advocates in the process. Under the rule, EPA is regulating coal ash under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), and declined to classify the toxic substance as “hazardous” under RCRA. This means that states are not required to implement the rule and the federal government is not enforcing the rule—leaving enforcement to the utilities (and other owners) themselves, the states, and via citizen suits. All in all, EPA’s rule falls short of the protections communities and waterways in our region need. Rep. McKinley’s bill would undermine even these basic protections provided by EPA’s rule.

If passed H.R. 1734 would:

  • ELIMINATE the rule’s ban on storing and dumping coal ash in drinking water;
  • ELIMINATE the EPA rule’s requirement to immediately clean up toxic releases and notify the public;
  • ELIMINATE the rule’s guarantee of public access to information regarding water contamination and assessments
  • DELAY new health and safety protections- potentially for up to 10 years;
  • DELAY the closure of leaking unlined ponds that have contaminated water above health standards and allow such
  • ELIMINATE the rule’s national standard for drinking water protection and cleanup of contaminated sites;
  • PROHIBIT EPA enforcement of state program requirements unless invited by a state.

This information was drawn from a fact sheet compiled by Earthjustice. Click here to view.

The Obama Administration cited many of these concerns in its statement of opposition to H.R. 1734. It’s encouraging to see the Administration defending EPA and the coal ash rule, but congressional attempts to undermine EPA are far from over.

On July 16, U.S. Senators John Hoeven (R-ND) and Joe Manchin (D-WV) introduced an identical bill in the U.S. Senate. Both bills would protect the business interests of utilities over the health and safety of communities and waterways while purporting to improve EPA’s coal ash rule.

The bills would delay key protections within EPA’s coal ash rule by up to 10 years. The minimum requirements in these bills are weaker than EPA’s rule, making these pieces of legislation dangerous. In the Southeast, we have 17 high hazard facilities and 20 significant hazard facilities as well as numerous Low or Unrated facilities. These bills would weaken the mandate under EPA’s coal ash rule for operators to close inactive (contaminated and abandoned) ponds by extending closure deadlines and allowing old, unused ponds like the Dan River impoundment that burst in 2014 to continue operating.

Those of us living in the Southeast should be particularly alarmed by these bills. The two biggest coal ash disasters in our nation’s history, the Dan River and Kingston spills, occurred in NC and TN respectively. The Southeast also has the highest concentration of coal ash in the country. Communities living in close proximity to coal ash impoundments should be concerned that these bills provide no guarantee of public access to information about toxic releases from coal ash impoundments or even unstable dams.

After the disasters at Kingston and Dan River, EPA’s coal ash rule finally provided some basic protections from toxic coal ash for our communities and waterways, but these hard-won victories could go out the window if this bill passes. Members of Congress need to understand that H.R. 1734 and the recently introduced Senate bill are attempts to gut EPA’s basic public health protections. You can have a big impact by telling your members of Congress to oppose HR 1734 today.

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