In this Dec. 22, 2008 file photo, an aerial view shows homes that were destroyed when a retention pond wall collapsed at the Tennessee Valley Authorities Kingston Fossil Plant in Harriman, Tenn. U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Varlan ruled Thursday, Aug. 23, 2012 that The Tennessee Valley Authority is liable for the huge spill of toxin-laden sludge. Varlan said in a written opinion that TVA was negligent in its conduct and will be liable for damages to be determined later. (AP Photo/Wade Payne, File)
Earlier today, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the latest version of a bill from Rep. David McKinley, R-W.Va., to block the federal Environmental Protection Agency from regulating toxic coal ash from the nation’s power plants. As Erica Peterson explained for WFPL, the vote was 265-155. West Virginia’s other two House members, Democrat Nick Rahall and Republican Shelley Moore Capito, are both co-sponsors of the bill.
Rep. McKinley said today:
For 33 years Congress has wrestled with how to deal with coal ash but has failed to find an answer. The bill that passed the House today is a common sense solution for how to recycle and dispose of this unavoidable byproduct of burning coal.
Keep in mind that the bipartisan Congressional Research Service has offered tough criticisms of the legislation, and Earthjustice has likewise said the legislation is far too weak, with the group’s coal-ash expert, Lisa Evans saying just this week:
This bill falsely claims to address the nationwide toxic threat from coal ash dumping. But in reality, the bill will make the problem much worse.
Over at The State Journal, the great Pam Kasey had a worthwhile story that explained how the legislation has gotten somewhat better:
The revised bill includes “improvements made by the Senate,” according to McKinley’s office.
Among them are requirements that all coal ash management and disposal facilities be subject to permit, that facilities be engineered and inspected, that they have groundwater monitoring, and that surface impoundments that fail to meet standards are closed within a given time period.
But, Pam adds, the bill may still not be good enough:
The bills’ approach broke from the model of successful environmental permitting programs … federal standards that are intended to provide a required level of protection, carried out by state-run permit programs that implement the standards. The House bill would not provide for the establishment of federal standards by a regulating agency such as the EPA, but, rather, would dictate some characteristics of state-run programs.
In addition, the bill would release hundreds of power plants from one of the central requirements — the requirement to close leaking disposal facilities — if they don’t have room to build another …
On Monday, the nonpartisan research group Maplight posted an update on Rep. McKinley’s coal industry campaign contributions, finding:
— Rep. David McKinley, R-W.Va., the bill’s chief sponsor, has received $263,928 from the coal mining and electric power utilities industries, the second highest total in the House of Representatives (behind only Speaker of the House, John Boehner, $529,117).
— McKinley has received 18 times more money from the coal mining and electric power utilities industries than the average for all members of the House of Representatives.
At the same time, while West Virginia political leaders continue to insist that the Obama administration is trying to shut down the coal industry, the group Environmental Integrity Project explains how the White House has weakened a key regulatory proposal concerning water pollution from power plants, including discharges from coal-ash dumps:
The EPA’s recent proposal to set long overdue standards contains multiple options, including strong standards that would require the elimination of the majority of coal plant water pollution using technologies that are available and cost-effective. The strongest of these options, called “Option 5” in the proposal, would eliminate almost all toxic discharges, reducing pollution by more than 5 billion pounds a year, and should be the option EPA selects for the final rule. The next strongest option, called Option 4, would eliminate ash-contaminated discharges, and apply rigorous treatment requirements for scrubber sludge, however it would only reduce pollution by 3.3 billion pounds a year, 2 billion less than Option 5. By eliminating or significantly reducing toxic discharges from coal plants, a strong final rule would create hundreds of millions of dollars in benefits every year in the form of improved health and recreational opportunities for all Americans, in addition to the incalculable benefits of clean and healthy watersheds.10 The EPA estimates that ending toxic dumping from coal plants would cost less than one percent of annual revenue for most coal plants and at most about two pennies a day in expenses for ordinary Americans if the utilities passed some of the cleanup costs to consumers.
Unfortunately, the proposal also includes illegal and weak options inserted by political operatives, rather than EPA scientists. These options would preserve the status quo or do little to control dangerous pollution dumping.
And the Center for Progressive Reform explained this week that EPA appears to be headed nowhere in finalizing its separate coal-ash rule:
Three years after the EPA proposed a rule to protect communities from coal ash—a byproduct of coal-power generation that’s filled with toxic chemicals like arsenic, lead, and mercury—a final rule is still nowhere in sight. Meanwhile, power plants are dumping an additional 94 million tons of it every year into wet-ash ponds and dry landfills that are already filled to capacity.
Seemingly untouched by this sense of looming disaster, the Obama Administration continues to dawdle in the face of resistance from the coal industry and perennial attempts from House Republicans to deprive the EPA of its authority over the issue. As the EPA fiddles with new power-plant data and reassesses the rule ad nauseam, the next coal ash catastrophe is waiting to happen. As we examine the wreckage, we’ll have to remember how this rule gathered dust on the Administration’s desk.
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.