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Congressional 'Think Tank' Exposes Flaws of Coal Ash Bill

The Congressional Research Service, dubbed the U.S. Congress’ 'think tank', recently released an authoritative analysis of S.3512 and—to the dismay of the bill’s stalwart sponsors—it’s a bust. CRS, a department of the Library of Congress and nonpartisan research tool for the House and Senate, recently weighed in definitively on the Senate and House coal ash bills, S.3512 and H.R. 2273, and concluded that the bills’ weaknesses are “unprecedented” in environmental law.

CRS found that the bills lack a clear purpose and would not ensure state standards “necessary to protect human health and the environment.” These bills—one passed by the House in October 2011 and the other now pending in the Senate—would prevent the EPA from ever setting federally enforceable safeguards for the disposal of toxic coal ash.

Just days before the 4th anniversary of the devastating billion-gallon coal ash spill in Kingston, TN, the report concluded that both bills:

  • Have a “level of uncertainty [that] defeats the purpose of a permit program and would not be consistent with other programs under RCRA.”
  • Provide “no federal backstop authority to implement federal standards comparable to its authorities established under other environmental law, including RCRA.”
  • Create a program without “detailed regulatory standards, [which is] unprecedented in federal environmental law.”
  • Lack a clear “standard of protection” to guarantee that state programs actually protect human health and the environment, which is “unique among all federal environmental law.”
  • Fail to address coal-ash specific risks to human health and the environment.
  • Specify “no deadline … for states to issue permits or to compel owner/operators of CCR structures to operate in compliance with permit conditions.”

The pending Senate bill would block an EPA rulemaking created to prevent spills and water contamination at hundreds of coal ash sites across the country. Introduced earlier this year, S.3512 could be attached to unrelated must-pass legislation at any time before the end of the lame duck session. Yet the push to pass this unprecedented and anti-public health bill on the fourth anniversary of the largest toxic waste spill in U.S. history is nothing short of unconscionable.

In fact, yesterday, Ranking Member Henry Waxman took a similar position in a letter to Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-MI) and Environment and the Economy Subcommittee Chairman John Shimkus (R-IL), asking them to abandon the lame duck coal ash legislation. The letter cites the CRS’s conclusion that the bill would not establish standards as stringent as those applicable to household trash or create “national, enforceable standards” in all states. According to the Rep. Waxman, “the distance between what it was hoped H.R. 2273 would achieve and what it is now clear it would achieve” is a gulf that cannot be bridged by a lame duck bill.

S.3512’s three primary sponsors need only look homeward for compelling reasons to scuttle the dangerous legislation. In North Dakota, original sponsors Hoeven (R- ND) and Conrad (D-ND) should be concerned about three significant-hazard toxic coal ash dams that were rated in “poor” condition by EPA in 2011, prompting an EPA letter to utility owners asking that the dams receive the “highest priority” in light of the threat to “human health and the environment.” A third sponsor, Sen. Baucus (D-MT) needs to consider the continuing harm wrought by the Colstrip Power Plant’s leaking high-hazard coal ash impoundments, which have already sickened nearby residents and threaten to poison ranchers miles away.

In the aftermath of superstorm Sandy, all senators must look homeward and recognize that with more than 200 coal ash-contaminated sites in 37 states, and over 1000 dangerous, aging impoundments in 41 states, the protection of health and safety from a devastating disaster must be their holiday promise. And if any southern senators are in doubt about where to find dangerous dams, an excellent new website launched by Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, Appalachian Voices, Southern Environmental Law Center, and NC Conservation Network identifies toxic coal ash dumps in nine southern states.

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