Coal Tattoo

What will Obama OSM(RE) nominee do about coal ash?

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UPDATED, 10 A.M. THURSDAY — The Senate hearing is being streamed live on the Web right now.

Earlier, I posted some questions that I would ask OSM(RE) nominee Joseph G. Pizarchik if I got the chance to take part in tomorrow’s U.S. Senate committee confirmation hearing.

pizarchik.JPGBut I also want to make sure Coal Tattoo readers are aware of Pizarchik’s involvement in another major issue facing the coalfields: How to regulate the toxic ash generated by the nation’s coal-fired power plants.

This issue, of course, burst onto the list of top environmental priorities back in December, when a coal-ash impoundment at a TVA plant in east Tennessee collapsed (photo, above).  But folks who followed it more closely have known for years that coal ash was smack in the middle of a huge loophole and faced little regulation by the federal government.

One of the big issues about coal ash has been whether companies should be allowed to dispose of it by dumping it into old played-out mine workings and on strip mine sites. This is something that the National Academy of Sciences cautioned could be very dangerous and shouldn’t be done without a very strict and detailed set of regulations.

In Pennsylvania, while serving as that state’s reclamation chief, Pizarchik has been in the middle of this issue — and environmental groups who have been following his decisions are now strongly opposing his confirmation to the OSMRE post, in large part because of his handling of coal-ash issues.

Even before Pizarchik was formally nominated by President Obama, Jeffrey Stant of the Environmental Integrity Project warned fellow activists in an e-mail message:

…Pizarchik has steered the PADEP in a far from neutral direction on contentuous battles, coming down unapologetically on industry’s side … his deep involvement in promoting risky minefill practices and his unwillingness to fairly examine data that documents increased pollution at mine ash sites make him an unwise choice for this federal agency.

Two years ago, Stant and the Clean Air Task Force published a report called, Impacts on Water Quality from Placement of Coal Combustion Waste in Pennsylvania Coal Mines, detailing how, at 10 of 15 mine sites examined by the state, coal ash disposal had polluted groundwater and streams with levels of arsenic, lead, cadmium and selenium and other pollutants above safe standards.

Pizarchik never bought these conclusions, and has been fighting with environmentalists ever since over proposed new regulations on coal-ash disposal at mine sites in Pennsylvania. Pizarchik makes it no secret that he’s a big advocate of the controversial practice of dumping power plant ash on mine sites as part of a reclamation plan that will clean up acid mine drainage:

Through the use of coal ash these old mines can be restored to productive land and reduce the amount of pollution coming from the old mines. Many of the sites reclaimed with coal ash would not likely be otherwise reclaimed.

Earlier this year, attorney Lisa Evans of Earthjustice wrote to Pizarchik’s boss, Pennsylvania acting DEP Secretary John Hanger, to complain about the proposed regulations. Among other things, Evans outlined in her April 7 letter concerns that Pennsylvania’s program to allow coal ash as minefill was not meeting the requirements of either the Surface Mining Act or the Clean Water Act:

The magnitude of CCW disposal operations and the attendant risks to human
health and the environment demand that DEP place the regulatory safeguards that are required under RCRA, SMCRA, and the CWA. DEP cannot adequately address ongoing water contamination by issuing unenforceable guidance or regulations that ignore these risks. Compliance with governing federal law and implementing regulations is required.

Then, on April 17,  Stant wrote another letter to Hanger, again raising more questions about the Pennsylvania coal-ash regulations:

As they are currently proposed these rules allow unlimited volumes of coal ash leaching metals at many times over safe standards in insufficient tests to be dumped into groundwater that flows directly from coal mines into nearby human receptors such as private or public drinking water wells. The rules do not ensure that this groundwater will even be monitored much less that unsafe concentrations of metals will result in prompt responses by operators or the department to address contamination.
In addition to these basic deficiencies, there are no provisions in the proposed
rules requiring financial assurance to be set aside by site operators to address contamination with enhanced monitoring and abatement measures. And solicitation of input from those living near ash beneficial use sites is not improved in the proposed rules despite the considerable, legitimate controversy that large scale beneficial uses without safeguards have created. Thus as currently written, we strongly believe that the proposed rules in Chapter 290 governing the beneficial use of coal ash are unacceptable not only for the Department and citizens of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, but also as an example for the rest of the nation to follow.

The Obama administration has promised to take tough action to write new regulations governing coal ash handling and disposal, in response to the TVA mess.  How do the practices that Joe Pizarchik has pushed in Pennsylvania mesh with Obama’s plans? Maybe someone on that Senate committee will ask …