As Congress considers legislation today to regulate the toxic byproducts of coal-fired power plants, a broad coalition of environmental groups welcome the quick attention to this vital issue from Chairman Nick Rahall and the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources, but cautioned that more sweeping action is necessary to fully address the problem.
At a hearing today by the committee, committee members reviewed the Coal Ash Reclamation, Environment, and Safety Act of 2009, introduced January 14 on the heels of coal ash spills at two Tennessee Valley Authority power plants.
The bill instructs the Office of Surface Mining (OSM) to establish -- within 180 days of passage -- design, engineering, and performance standards for the disposal of coal combustion waste in ponds built after the bill's enactment. A thorough inventory of coal combustion waste disposal ponds would be required within 12 months of passage, and OSM can choose to apply the standards to those existing wet disposal sites it selects.
Environmental groups welcomed the sentiment behind the bill's swift timetable and inventory requirements, but called for stronger action from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which has authority to regulate coal combustion waste under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.
The bill seeks to regulate, rather than ban, the dangerous practice of mixing pollutant-laden ash with water and dumping the dangerous mixture into ponds, where toxins can more easily migrate and contaminate groundwater supplies. For years, environmental groups have called for a phase-out of coal ash ponds in favor of safer alternatives: dry disposal in landfills and certain types of recycling.
"We're heartened to see Chairman Rahall and the committee taking seriously the threat posed by coal ash," said Earthjustice Associate Legislative Counsel Ben Dunham. "But if we're going to keep people safe, we need to altogether ban the practice of dumping this toxic mixture into ponds where it can easily seep into drinking water supplies. There are safer alternatives. Those are the ones we should be considering."
A second concern is that the bill would task the Office of Surface Mining -- instead of the Environmental Protection Agency -- with regulating disposal of toxic coal combustion waste. Environmental groups recognize that even though the Natural Resources Committee lacks jurisdiction over the Environmental Protection Agency, Chairman Rahall has worked to have the Committee address this pressing problem. However, fully and adequately protecting the public from the threats posed by coal combustion waste disposal will require the direct involvement of the EPA.
"Putting OSM in charge of regulating toxic coal combustion waste is like having a fox guard the hen house," said Mary Anne Hitt, Deputy Director of the Sierra Club's Move Beyond Coal Campaign. "Already on OSM's watch, dozens of coal waste impoundments have failed. EPA on the other hand has studied the issue for 30 years and has the expertise to quickly and effectively regulate coal combustion waste in a way that takes into account the impact to human health and the environment."
On December 22, 2008, an earthen dam for a coal ash waste impoundment failed at the Kingston Fossil Plant, releasing hundreds of millions of gallons of coal ash sludge and contaminated water into the Emory and Clinch Rivers and onto more than 300 acres of nearby land. A second, smaller spill occurred less than three weeks later at a second TVA plant in Widows Creek, Alabama.
"Across America, coal waste storage can pose a serious threat to public health and the environment, as we vividly saw during these two recent coal spills," said Jon Devine, a senior attorney in NRDC's Water Program. "We need EPA to impose tough and comprehensive standards for these disposal sites to reduce the risk of catastrophic failure and limit chronic pollution from dirty coal waste."
In the wake of the Tennessee and Alabama coal ash spills, national attention has seized on problems posed by the poisonous waste of coal-fired power plants. The 129 million tons of coal ash generated each year constitutes the nation's second largest industrial waste stream.
"Despite our reservations with portions of the bill, we welcome the hearing as an opportunity to discuss the best way to regulate coal combustion waste. This bill will spur EPA to quickly issue regulations that protect the public and the environment from the toxins in coal ash," added Ben Dunham of Earthjustice.