Skip to main content

Tr-Ash Talk: The Summer of Coal Ash

Summer on Capitol Hill has been a hot one—especially for coal ash. The 11th hour removal of a devastating coal ash provision tacked onto the federal transportation bill  gave hope to thousands of communities that Congress would not turn its on public health and the environment. When the smoke cleared and President Obama signed a transportation bill without the coal ash provision, those threatened by contaminated air and water breathed a sigh of relief—among them the Moapa Tribe of Paiutes in Nevada; ranchers and residents in Colstrip, Montana; communities in West Virginia and Pennsylvania; and residents along the floodplains of the Missouri River.

The transportation bill was a near fatal blow to EPA’s authority to regulate coal ash, and those who launched the fight vowed to return. In fact, Rep. David McKinley vowed defiantly, “We’re not finished.” Undoubtedly, Rep. McKinley will be back to push his bill for his friends in the coal industry. But who else is included in this ominous “we”? Following the transportation bill negotiations, rumors suggest a Senate bill is currently circulating that picks up where McKinley left off. With only days to the end of the summer legislative session, we may see the new bill as early as this week.

Will a new Senate bill protect public health or, like the McKinley bill, will it serve solely the interests of the coal and utility industries that seek to avoid regulation of their toxic waste? It will be easy to tell. A coal ash bill that protects American communities, while creating jobs and encouraging beneficial reuse, will accomplish the following:

  1. Prevent another Kingston Disaster: Toxic coal ash ponds are getting older by the minute. Unstable and leaking coal ash ponds must be phased out within a reasonable time. Prior to closure, the ponds must be operated in compliance with established federal safety standards, and states must be required to inspect the ponds and enforce the safety requirements.
  2. Preserve EPA enforcement and rulemaking authority: The EPA must have the authority to enforce the laws that Congress enacts, especially in the event that states are unable or unwilling to take action. The EPA must also have the authority to regulate coal ash now and in the future, because the threat from ash is growing as the waste becomes more toxic and voluminous.
  3. Address legacy sites: The bill must address inactive coal ash dump sites, because such sites continue to present grave hazards through leaching of toxic contaminants or catastrophic collapse.
  4. Control fugitive dust: The bill must contain clear and enforceable standards for covering coal ash dumps and keeping toxic ash out of the air of nearby communities.
  5. Protect drinking water from the deadly pollutants in coal ash: Coal ash dumps have poisoned drinking water sources at well over 100 sites across the nation with cancer and disease-causing chemicals. The bill must prevent such contamination and force leaking dumps to clean up or close as soon as possible.
  6. Establish a legal standard to protect human health and the environment: Like every other federal environmental legislation intended to protect public health, the bill must establish a legal standard that requires all state regulations and programs to protect human health and the environment.

A bill without these minimum public health protections is an exceedingly dangerous precedent and a hazardous waste of time.