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Tr-Ash Talk: The Good And Bad Coal Ash News

(Note from Lisa Evans: Last week, we nearly lost the battle for Environmental Protection Agency regulations. However, thanks to the chorus of voices from affected communities and public interest groups across the nation and to the amazing work of our champions in the House and Senate, a provision blocking an EPA coal ash rule was removed from the federal transportation bill.  Here is a wrap-up of the close fight by Josh Galperin, Policy Analyst and Research Attorney for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. Josh reminds us that -- contrary to what the coal industry would have us believe -- more (coal ash dumps) cannot equal less (regulation).)

Last week brought a lot of news about coal ash in national media, some good, some bad. On one side we learned of new information from the EPA to add to the growing mountain of evidence about the risks of unregulated coal ash (that’s bad). On the other side we pulled out a narrow victory in Washington, DC by keeping dangerous coal ash language out of the federal Transportation Bill (phew, that’s good!).

On June 27 the EPA released new data on the number of coal ash dumps across the country. Prior to this release, the EPA reported a total of just over 1,000 ash dumps (both ponds and landfills), a staggering number considering the danger that these dumps pose. We thought that number was high, but with this new information we now know the more accurate total is closer to 1,554 dumps, with around 400 located in the Southeast!

This new tally is an increase of more than 50 percent, but there are even more unreported sites and disappearances of coal ash out there. Industries are refusing to identify all their dumps claiming “confidential business information”. Likewise, a government report from 2011 highlighted the particular problem where industries are “recycling” 70 million tons of coal ash by using it in roadbeds, golf courses and other hidden places where we may never be able to find it or know it’s true health and environmental impact over time.

The day after the EPA released this new data, members of Congress finally reached an agreement on a federal Transportation Bill and that agreement fortunately did not include a provision that would have prevented the EPA from establishing coal ash safeguards. Representative David McKinley (R-W.Va) has been pushing a bill to undermine EPA’s authority and efforts to reduce the dangers of coal ash storage. With efforts to pass his bill through normal channels failing, Rep. McKinley tried to sneak it in to law through negotiations over transportation projects. Initially it appeared that the coal ash proposal would become law–undoing years of hard work by the EPA, scientists and advocates–but at the eleventh hour negotiators thought better, rejected Rep. McKinley’s language, and left the EPA to do its job.

There is no way to tell whether EPA’s data release had any impact on the fate of coal ash in the Transportation Bill. Nonetheless, it is a rare pleasure to see a correlation between the accumulation of evidence and the actions of politicians. On the other hand, not all politicians are on the same page. According to Energy and Environment Daily, Rep. McKinley was clear that he will continue to push, saying, “We’re not finished. I can say that. We’re not finished.”

Stay tuned… the mountains of coal ash evidence are piling high and we remain optimistic that eventually the EPA will do the right thing and issue strong, comprehensive, federal rules to properly regulate the toxic waste leftover after power companies burn coal for power.

For more information on the identity of hundreds of new coal ash dumps recently released by the EPA, please read our press release.

(This blog was first posted at the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy website.)

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