Arsenic and Old Coal Ash

Post updated.

New proposal to create jobs: add arsenic.

Every year in the United States we produce some 130 million short tons of coal ash (see here and here [pdf]). A toxic mixture of contaminants like mercury, arsenic, cadmium, selenium and lead as well as radioactive materials like radium, coal ash is generated from burning coal and associated with serious health problems including cancer.

Almost 60 percent of that coal ash is simply dumped in storage ponds or impoundments. The numbers vary as to how many of these storage units exist in the United States. In 1999 government estimates had it that there were some 600 holding ponds and landfills around the country while a New York Times report from January 2009 put the number at around 1,300 — noting that most are “unregulated and unmonitored.” In all, it’s estimated that billions of gallons of this coal waste are being held at storage sites in the United States. 

The Spotlight Was Turned on Coal Ash After Big Spill in Tennessee

The issue of coal ash jumped to the front pages almost three years ago when a wall broke on a retention pond in Kingston, Tennessee, days before Christmas 2008. The spill was huge — nearly five and a half million cubic yards of fly ash sludge flowed into the Emory and Clinch Rivers in and around Harriman, Tennessee — enough, the NYT reported, “to flood more than 3,000 acres one foot deep.”

On the heels of the spill, a newly sworn-in EPA administrator, Lisa Jackson, vowing that science “be the backbone of what EPA does,” promised action — new rules on the handling of coal ash within a year.

Alas, things did not quite proceed according to that schedule. In December 2009 EPA released a statement on coal ash: “EPA’s pending decision on regulating coal ash waste from power plants, expected this month, will be delayed for a short period due to the complexity of the analysis the agency is currently finishing.”

I guess “short period” is a relative term. It wasn’t until May 2010, in the wake of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, that Jackson announced EPA’s proposed new rules for coal ash. On behalf of the agency, she requested public comments on the two approaches EPA was considering for regulating coal ash — one under a hazardous waste designation, the other under a non-hazardous waste designation.

In March 2011, Administrator Jackson announced that, due to the wave of public comments received (almost half a million), a new coal ash rule “would not be ready this calendar year.”

New House Bill Sets Sights on Coal Ash Regs, Opting for States to Override Federal Oversight and Protections

Another (temporary?) victory for the anti-regulators to be sure. But apparently that wasn’t enough. A new bill in the House [pdf] proposed by Rep. David McKinley (R-WV) that is scheduled for a vote today would allow new coal ash sites to be built that could “leak up to five times more arsenic into groundwater than current law allows,” according to a report [pdf] by the Environmental Integrity Project (EIP).

Instead of abiding by federal standards such as those laid out in the Safe Drinking Water Act, the EIP report points out, H.R.2273 would allow state agencies the latitude to set much less stringent standards than what EPA has determined is safe.

This critique from the Environmental Protection Agency and Democrats on the Energy and Commerce Committee fleshes this flaw out a bit more:

“Under each of our environmental laws, Congress has established a legal standard when delegating programs to the states. These standards are the yardsticks by which it is determined whether a state’s efforts measure up and they ensure a consistent level of effort and protection throughout the nation. This approach has worked well, because it prevents a race to the bottom among the states in which a state willing to have the laxest protections becomes the dumping ground for the nation. In the case of municipal solid waste, the legal standard is to ‘protect human health and the environment,’ but under H.R. 2273, this standard does not apply to coal combustion residuals (CCR). According to EPA, ‘the absence of an explicit legal standard of protection will significantly complicate EPA’s ability to effectively determine that a state program is deficient.’”

Essentially, H.R. 2273 would take a number of important regulatory measures designed to safeguard human health out of the hands of EPA and put them into the hands of whichever states prefer to run their own regulatory program for coal ash.

It also appears that H.R. 2273 would serve to clean up, if you will, the bad reputation that coal ash earned in the wake of the Kingston accident. As Rep. McKinley noted this distinction in his remarks on the bill in front of the Energy and Commerce Committee: “This legislation, H.R. 2273, will … remove the stigma of this byproduct as being hazardous.”

Presumably this bill will meet its demise today on the House floor. If not, let’s all celebrate with an arsenic cocktail. Maybe Rep. McKinley will join us.

Post corrected 5:54 p.m. Oct. 14, 2011 to fix a typo — “million” had gone missing from final posted draft and is now back in: “The spill was huge — nearly five and a half million cubic yards of fly ash sludge flowed into the Emory and Clinch Rivers in and around Harriman, Tennessee…”

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