Coal ash issue must be settled with law keeping control with states

(Times West Virginian 6-3-2012) — The countdown is on. Lawmakers have less than a month before the June 30 date when federal funding for road and transit projects will end. That’s crucial for the transportation bill being worked on in a joint House-Senate committee, and it doesn’t leave much time for elected leaders to reach a compromise on a specific part of the bill: the issue of coal ash.

Of course, the key word is “compromise,” and two of West Virginia’s congressmen have been unable to reach a happy middle ground.

The problem centers around specific language in the bill that would limit the power of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to declare coal ash, a byproduct of coal combustion, a hazardous material. Even though it’s been ruled nonhazardous by the EPA numerous times over the years, most recently in 2006, there’s always the chance that a lawsuit and judicial precedent would replace previous EPA findings.

And that’s where the arguing begins.

U.S. Rep. David McKinley, R-W.Va., says having a law in place that would allow states to determine disposal, use and storage of coal ash would not only protect the coal industry, but a variety of industries where the byproduct is used.

But U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., says environmental issues should not be included in the transportation bill. He’s currently sitting on the 47-member joint panel that is negotiating an agreement between the two bills.

“My focus remains on creating a compromise surface transportation bill that will build roads, create and save millions of good-paying jobs, and improve safety for tens of millions of Americans,” Rockefeller said. “Controversial issues can’t be allowed to kill the bill.

“Separately, we do need to work to find the right balance for protecting beneficial reuse of coal ash and West Virginia communities.”

McKinley contends that coal ash belongs in the transportation bill because of concrete, which is made with a mix of Portland cement, sand and gravel. Over the years, more companies have replaced part of the Portland cement with coal ash because it greatly reduces the price of the project without reducing the quality of the end product.

Furthermore, concrete, as we all know, is a key component when it comes to building roads, bridges and other infrastructure across the nation.

McKinley says if coal ash ceases to be controlled by the states and becomes a federal issue with a federal “hazardous” label, it will cease to be used in concrete, construction materials like drywall and even items like bowling balls.

“We don’t need this fight,” McKinley said. “We need to get the transportation bill passed. Period.”

Even U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., has weighed in on the “fight,” saying he agrees that a long-term transportation bill needs to be passed. He pointed to how coal ash is successfully dealt with on the state level in West Virginia.

“In West Virginia, we are already closely monitoring coal ash storage and disposal facilities to ensure coal ash is handled safely — and we are doing it well,” Manchin said last week. “The last thing we need is additional regulations that would threaten many good-paying jobs in our state.”

With just a few weeks left to bicker over the details, a compromise must be reached.

We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: McKinley is right when it comes to coal ash, and he seems determined to make others in Washington see the importance of the issue being included in this particular bill.

We just hope they start listening, and soon.
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