Coal Tattoo

White House threatens veto of coal ash bill

Coal Ash Spill

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.   (AP Photo/Wade Payne, File)

With the U.S. House set this week to take up West Virginia Republican Rep. David McKinley’s coal-ash bill, the Obama White House yesterday evening issued a pretty clear threat to veto the legislation if it ever reaches the president’s desk. Essentially, the administration says the proposal would undercut the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s coal-ash rule issued last December:

EPA’s rule articulates clear and consistent national standards to protect public health and the environment, prevent contamination of drinking water, and minimize the risk of catastrophic failure at coal ash surface impoundments. H.R. 1734 would, however, substantially weaken these protections. For example, the bill would eliminate restrictions on how close coal ash impoundments can be located to drinking water sources. It also would undermine EPA’s requirement that unlined impoundments must close or be retrofitted with protective liners if they are leaking and contaminating drinking water. Further, the bill would delay requirements in EPA’s final CCR rule, including structural integrity and closure requirements, for which tailored extensions are already available through EPA’s rule and through approved Solid Waste Management Plans.

This morning, Rep. McKinley, through a spokesman, had this to say in response:

Two years ago, President Obama said he ‘would like to work with Congress’ to ensure the safe management of coal ash. That’s what we have done with our bill. Yesterday’s veto threat ignores the bipartisan consensus built over five years on this bill.

It’s worth noting that folks in the environmental community already think the EPA rule is far too weak. As Lisa Evans of Earthjustice wrote yesterday in a blog post:

Last December, the EPA, after decades of deliberation and declarations of support from half a million citizens, finally established regulatory safeguards for the disposal of toxic coal ash. Though the final rule is weak and full of compromises for the utility industry, it  provides some relief for communities near the more than 1,000 leaking coal ash dumps in the U.S.

When the rule goes into effect this fall, contaminated groundwater will be identified and dangerous dumps closed. Coal ash’s witch’s brew of carcinogens, neurotoxins and other deadly chemicals, including arsenic, lead, chromium and thallium, will finally be subjected to reasonable disposal standards nationwide.

The new EPA rule takes steps to fix a huge public health threat caused by the second largest industrial waste stream in the nation. Decades of unregulated dumping has caused water contamination at more than 200 sites; catastrophic ash spills that cost billions to remediate and cause irreparable damage; and a legacy of hundreds of aging “high-hazard” and “significant-hazard” ash lagoons that threaten human life, the environment and the economic lifelines of nearby communities should they fail.

Yet none of this matters to Rep. McKinley and the supporters of HR 1734. His bill guts the rule and rolls back critical public health safeguards. 

 Among other things, Evans wrote, the legislation:

— Eliminates the EPA’s ban on dumping toxic coal ash directly into drinking water aquifer

— Eliminates the requirement for utilities to immediately clean up toxic releases and notify the publi

— Eliminates the guarantee of public access to information about water contamination and assessments of dangerous coal ash dams

— Delays new health and safety protections—potentially for 10 years.

In its statement, the White House said:

Because it would undercut important national protections provided by EPA’s 2014 CCR management and disposal rule, the Administration strongly opposes H.R. 1734. If the President were presented with H.R. 1734 as drafted, his senior advisors would recommend that he veto the bill.