House GOP Pushes Different Coal Ash Debate

(The Tennessean 5-1-2011)  Last fall’s elections changed a lot more than how House lawmakers approach issues such as federal spending and the deficit. Take coal ash, for example. Democrats no longer set the agenda, as they did in 2008 when a massive coal ash spill at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s coal-fired plant in Kingston led to calls for the Environmental Protection Agency to designate coal ash as a hazardous waste and tighten oversight of ash storage sites.
 
The move had been opposed by the administration of Republican President George W. Bush, but EPA official Mathy Stanislaus testified at a House committee hearing in July 2009 that the agency was studying the chemicals in coal ash that threaten human health. “We will be issuing that regulation later this year,” Stanislaus said in response to intense questioning from Democrats who favored stricter regulation. “So we are taking this seriously.”
 
Fast forward to this year, with Republicans in charge. The most recent House hearing on coal ash, held April 14, focused on legislation that would ban the EPA from regulating coal combustion waste as a hazardous substance. This hearing was stacked with witnesses who oppose stringent federal regulation.
 
Rep. John Shimkus, R-Ill.,who chaired the hearing, handed out samples of wallboard and other products made with coal combustion waste. “If you’re afraid of toxicity, don’t touch,” he said facetiously. “But if you’re not, like me, you can see all of these beneficial uses of fly ash and coal ash.” Stanislaus testified again at the April hearing, but this time the questions he faced were about the consequences of regulating coal ash.
 
EPA officials issued proposed coal ash regulations in June 2010 that included two options. One would designate the substance as a hazardous waste and mandate federal oversight. The other, less stringent, alternative would allow voluntary compliance and put states in charge.
 
Stigmatizing coal ash
 
Republicans are concerned a hazardous waste designation would cost jobs by stigmatizing the use of coal ash in wall board, concrete and other commercial products. Stanislaus said at the recent hearing that the EPA hasn’t studied the regulations’ potential job impact in detail. But he said the issue is included in comments from the 15,000 people who participated in public hearings on the proposed regulations, and in the 450,000 written statements the EPA has received.
 
Stanislaus also said EPA officials have no plans to regulate the so-called beneficial uses of coal ash. Dawn Santoianni, an engineer with Veritas Economic Consulting, testified that about 15 million to 20 million tons of coal waste would have to be sent to landfills each year if the waste is designated a hazardous substance. That would exhaust the remaining storage space in two years, she said.
 
She also said utility costs would increase by about $5.3 billion to $7.6 billion per year, far higher than EPA estimates. Testifying on the other side of the debate were Lisa Evans with Earthjustice, and Curt Havens, who lives near a coal ash pond in West Virginia. “Interference in EPA’s ongoing technical and scientific deliberation is reckless and unjustifiable,” Evans said. Stanislaus said final regulations won’t be issued until next year, when all House seats and the presidency are again up for election.