Despite 'Niagara' of Coal Ash, EPA Treads Water on Regulations

Why the hold up? We're drowning in this toxic mess

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Coal-fired power plants generate enough coal ash every year to fill a train stretching from the North Pole all the way to the South Pole. There is enough coal ash being stored in ponds and landfills to fill 738 Empire State Buildings, or flow continuously over Niagara Falls for three days straight. It’s no mystery that we create staggering amounts of coal ash, the dangerous byproduct of burning coal to fuel our energy demands.

But what remains a mystery is why the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency still hasn’t made a clear commitment to federal safeguards that ensure protections for our health and environment against this hazardous waste.

On May 4, the EPA finally issued the first-ever regulations on coal ash. They sent these proposed rules to the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) back in October 2009, and after OMB had nearly 30 meetings with industry lobbyists for the polluters responsible for coal ash problems, the EPA took the unusual step of issuing two separate regulations: one regulates coal ash as hazardous waste (a move supported by scientists and environmental groups); another regulates coal ash as non-hazardous waste (a cheaper and less protective option that polluters favor).

By not expressing any preference, EPA has essentially taken a middle-of-the-road path that, as Mr. Miyagi said in the film "The Karate Kid," "Walk left side, safe. Walk right side, safe. Walk middle, sooner or later, squish like grape."

But the EPA is not entirely to blame. A few days after they released their hodge-podge proposal, a draft circulated from their original proposal sent to OMB back in February showed they clearly favored a hazardous waste designation for coal ash. Edits from OMB removed many references to coal ash as "hazardous waste," optioning instead to call it "special waste." The OMB changes essentially pulled the rug from underneath EPA’s original plans to set the strongest standards for coal ash ponds and landfills the law allows.

The public comment period on the EPA’s two-part plan should begin sometime this summer. Dozens of national and local environmental and public health groups are planning coordinated outreach to our members and supporters to send a strong message to the EPA and the Obama administration: coal ash is hazardous waste. We need federally enforceable safeguards that guarantee communities near the hundreds of coal ash dumps receive the strongest protections.

Jared was the head coach of Earthjustice's advocacy campaign team from 2004 to 2014.

Earthjustice’s Washington, D.C., office works at the federal level to prevent air and water pollution, combat climate change, and protect natural areas. We also work with communities in the Mid-Atlantic region and elsewhere to address severe local environmental health problems, including exposures to dangerous air contaminants in toxic hot spots, sewage backups and overflows, chemical disasters, and contamination of drinking water. The D.C. office has been in operation since 1978.