EPA decision on Tenn. cleanup coming on Election Day – but still no word on new coal-ash standards

October 26, 2012 by Ken Ward Jr.

There’s an interesting item out of Tennessee in this morning’s Knoxville News-Sentinel:

The Environmental Protection Agency’s decision on how to proceed with the final phase of TVA’s cleanup of coal ash spilled in a 2008 calamity will be issued Nov. 6, an official said.

The EPA will announce then its approved method for dealing with the sludge — in layers ranging from several inches to several feet thick — that coat the bottoms of the Emory and Clinch rivers.

Officials have estimated the equivalent of about 33,000 dump truck loads of sludge are spread over 200 acres.

It’s part of some 5.4 million cubic yards of coal ash that burst from a ruptured holding cell at TVA’s Kingston Fossil Plant in December 2008.

But as OMB Watch pointed out earlier this week, there’s still really no word from the Obama administration on when — or if — it plans to finalize new national standards for the handling and disposal of toxic coal ash:

This December will mark the four-year anniversary of a massive spill in Tennessee that sparked new calls for the regulation of coal ash, a toxic waste produced when coal is burned. Although the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed options for regulating coal ash in 2010, little progress has been made toward issuing comprehensive national standards. Environmental groups have asked the courts to force the agency to act while bills attempting to thwart new standards have been moving through Congress. This impasse may continue until after the upcoming elections. The failure to provide adequate standards for coal ash is increasingly alarming as new studies continue to highlight its dangers.

Now, the Republicans in the U.S. Senate are trying to make something out of this, claiming in a new “report” that the EPA’s coal ash rules are among a number of initiatives that the Obama administration has recently put on hold until after the election, to hide its real intent for actions in a second term:

… It’s pretty clear that if President Obama secures a second term, the Obama-EPA will have a very busy next four years, moving full speed ahead to implement numerous major rules and regulations that he has delayed or punted due to the upcoming election. The radical environmental left may not need to worry, but what about American families, who are working hard in tough economic times, trying to make ends meet?

As the nation struggles to recover from a lagging economy in the coming year, Americans could also be grappling with a regulatory onslaught from the Obama-EPA that will strangle economic growth, destroy millions of jobs, and dramatically raise the price of goods, the cost of electricity, and the price of gas at the pump.

Frankly, though, I’m not sure the timeline on these coal-ash rules backs up this version of events. There’s plenty of evidence that EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson has never been all that hot to do anything about coal ash in the first place.

The TVA coal-ash disaster in Tennessee occurred in December 2008, a couple of weeks after the election. Only a few months into the Obama administration, in March 2009, EPA promised it would propose a rule by the end of that year.   But come December 2009, as the first anniversary of the TVA disaster approached, Lisa Jackson was backing off that timeline. As I wrote in a Dec. 18, 2009, Gazette story:

The Obama administration announced Thursday it would delay the release of proposed new rules on the handling and disposal of toxic ash from coal-fired power plants.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson had promised the rules proposal would be issued before the end of the year.

In a prepared statement, EPA did not offer a new timeline, but said the delay was for a “short period” and the proposal would be issued “in the near future.”

EPA cited the “complexity of the analysis” involved in the issue and said agency officials are “still actively clarifying and refining parts of the proposal.”

“Administrator Jackson has been committed since the beginning of her administration to complete these efforts, and expects to issue a proposed rule in the near future,” the EPA said.

EPA didn’t announce a proposed rule until May 2010, and even then, it wasn’t so much a proposal as an outline of what we already knew: There were two major options for how the agency could go about regulating coal ash, and EPA couldn’t decide which one it wanted to use. And then, in May 2011, EPA announced it wasn’t going to complete a final rule in 2011 … So after talking pretty big about coal ash concerns, the Obama EPA has now spent four years thinking about it, and has no final rule to show for it.

Lisa Evans, who follows coal ash issues for the group Earthjustice, told me recently:

Appeasement is all I’ve seen so far from EPA on the coal ash issue … If the industry defines “war” as any reasonable regulation of coal ash– all one can say is that the Obama Administration has refused to engage. 

 

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