Coal ash comes to Congress

February 9, 2009 by Ken Ward Jr.


A House Natural Resources subcommittee has scheduled a hearing for later this week on committee Chairman Nick J. Rahall’s legislation to regulate the design, construction and inspection of coal-ash impoundments across the nation’s coalfields.

The hearing is set for 10 a.m. Thursday before the Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources.

Witnesses include:

— John Craynon, mining engineer and chief of regulator support at the U.S. Office of Surface Mining, Reclamation and Enforcement.

— J. Davitt McAteer, vice president at Wheeling Jesuit University and former head of the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration.

— Tom FitzGerald, Kentucky Resources Council.

— Sandy Gruzesky, director of the Division of Water, state of Kentucky.

Gazette readers recall that Rahall’s legislation (H.R. 493) would apply to coal-ash impoundments regulations substantially similar to those that currently apply to coal slurry impoundments under the 1977 federal strip mining law. For more about the legislation, check back to this article on the Gazette Web site.

Rahall, D-W.Va., introduced his legislation a few weeks after the disastrous failure of a coal-ash impoundment at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Kingston Plant in Roane County, Tenn. (Thanks to my fellow Society of Environmental Journalists member Antrim Caskey and to Southwing for the photo with this post. To view more of Antrim’s photos of the TVA mess, visit her Web site.)

For folks who are interested in keeping up with the aftermath of the TVA disaster, I’d suggest monitoring the Web sites of the Knoxville News and the Nashville Tennessean. Also, the TVA is posting its own updates, as are Appalachian Voices and United MountainDefense.

When he introduced his bill, Rahall recalled the Farmington and Buffalo Creek disasters, and reminded fellow lawmakers “every single federal law regulating coal was penned in blood.”

“This time, heaven intervened, and thankfully no lives were lost,” Rahall said in prepared remarks on his Coal Ash Reclamation, Environment and Safety Act of 2009. “Now is the time to take that action, before any lives are lost to a similar disaster.”

Indeed, there are no federal standards for coal-ash dams, and it appears that many major coal states — West Virginia included — don’t necessarily pay that much attention to these impoundments.

But, behind the scenes, controversy is brewing over a push by environmental groups to also have EPA declare coal-ash to be a hazardous waste. Environmentalists like Rahall’s bill, as far as it goes. But they also say that some sort of hazardous waste designation by EPA is needed to mandate cradle-to-grave management of this toxic coal ash and deal with regulatory gaps that the TVA dam failure has exposed.

Over at the West Virginia Environmental Law Blog, Dave Yaussy offers an industry view on the hazardous waste question, in response to Cindy Rank’s commentary for the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy.

Rahall himself has drawn some heat, because his signature appears on a 2000 letter that urged EPA not to regulate coal-ash as a hazardous waste. An article about this by Kristen Lombardi at the Center for Public Integrity has been making the rounds among coal industry watchdogs.

rahall_photo.jpgMore than 30 years, Rahall was a freshman congressman from Southern West Virginia’s coalfields when he served on the conference committee that wrote the final version of the landmark federal strip mining law. Since then, he’s repeatedly dogged OSM to do a better job, and has been a constant champion of the federal coal tax that funds the Abandoned Mine Lands program.

But Rahall also makes no bones about his support for mountaintop removal, a stance that makes coal industry critics among the environmental community a little wary of his leadership on any coal-related issue. Environmentalists fear that some fix might be in here, especially since power companies and the coal industry have not come out against Rahall’s dam safety bill.

The fear here is that Rahall is pushing for OSM to take the lead on coal ash regulation. Citizen groups really don’t trust OSM, and want EPA to either take the lead or have a very strong hand in the matter. The National Academy of Sciences backed the citizens on this in its 2006 report on coal-ash:

“The committee believes that OSM and its SMCRA state partners should take the lead in developing new national standards for CCR use in mines because the framework is in place to deal with mine-related issues. Nevertheless, most individuals and public-interest groups that appeared before the committee expressed a lack of confidence that SMCRA agencies can deal with these issues. This lack of public trust should be remedied. Joint rules from OSM and EPA might help in this regard, although such efforts often lead to problems in defining clear lines of authority.”

I asked Rahall’s office if he still opposes hazardous waste classification for coal ash. Here’s the statement they gave me:

“The status quo is not acceptable when it comes to regulating coal ash, especially in light of the fact that recent advances in air pollution control technologies at powerplants captures more toxic residues rather than releasing them into the air. As such, I believe the EPA must move forward in establishing a regulatory regime governing coal combustion products that safeguards the public and the environment from the hazardous nature of some of this waste residue while ensuring that it can continue to be recycled and reused in beneficial applications where appropriate.”

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