A brand new loophole in pending coal ash legislation in the House of Representatives will allow hundreds of leaking, unlined coal ash sites to avoid a requirement to close after eight to 10 years of polluting drinking water sources.
The “Coal Residuals Reuse and Management Act of 2013, (H.R. 2218)” sponsored by Rep. David McKinley (R-WV), purports to establish a framework for state coal ash permit programs. However, critics of the bill, including the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, have determined that the bill does not guarantee protection of health and the environment or mandate minimum national standards to control toxic coal ash pollution. The bill is scheduled for a full vote in the House this week, possibly as early as today.
The bill will release hundreds of coal plants from a critical requirement because H.R. 2218 exempts plants that do not currently have space onsite to build another coal ash dump from the requirement to close leaking impoundments. According to H.R. 2218, these plants could just continue filling and expanding existing impoundments. Data recently released by the Environmental Protection Agency in a recent proposal to curb toxic water pollution from power plants show that almost three-quarters of the plants currently operating unlined coal ash impoundments do not have sufficient acreage on which to build an average-sized coal ash landfill. Thus most polluting plants could dump more toxic waste indefinitely into their existing unlined basins—even when those impoundments are exceeding groundwater protection standards.
According to the EPA’s newly released data, which is comprised of information submitted by utility companies pursuant to an Information Collection Request, 300 coal plants dump toxic waste into unlined impoundments. However, the EPA data also reveal that 220 of the 300 plants (73 percent) would not be subject to the requirement to close these polluting lagoons.
“Unlined coal ash impoundments pose grave dangers to the health of neighboring communities,” said Lisa Evans, senior administrative counsel at Earthjustice. “Instead of requiring phase-out and cleanup within a reasonable time, H.R. 2218 allows plants to continue to poison the nation’s waters without end.”
Wet storage of coal ash in vast sludge ponds is the most dangerous type of toxic waste disposal according to the EPA. An EPA risk assessment in 2010 found that the leaking of chemicals into drinking water from some unlined impoundments may pose a 1 in 50 risk of cancer from arsenic exposure to nearby communities who get their drinking water from affected aquifers. Further, the collapse of an impoundment in Kingston, TN in 2008 resulted in the release of over 1 billion gallons of hazardous material. This was the largest toxic waste spill in U.S. history, and the river of toxic waste swept away homes and covered over 300 acres in sludge. Across the nation, at least 81 coal ash surface impoundments in 26 states have contaminated rivers, streams and aquifers according to the EPA.
“This bill falsely claims to address the nationwide toxic threat from coal ash dumping,” says Evans, “but in reality, the bill will make the problem much worse.”