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Lisa Evans's Blog

The EPA doesn’t need yet another reason to require the safe closure of the nation’s 1,070 coal ash ponds. But the massive leak of 82,000 tons of toxic coal ash from Duke Energy’s Dan River Power Station this week should set off a siren to wake our sleeping regulators.

This week the House will vote on the “Coal Residuals Reuse and Management Act of 2013” (HR 2218) sponsored by Rep. David McKinley (R-WV). The bill ruthlessly guts longstanding public health and environmental protections of the nation’s decades-old statute protecting communities from solid and hazardous waste disposal. This shameless industry giveaway creates a giant loophole for the toxic waste generated by coal-fired power plants.

Recent sampling of paths constructed of coal ash near J.L. Wilkinson Elementary School in Middleburg, Florida reveal high levels of vanadium, a hazardous substance linked to cardiovascular disease and nervous system damage. Vanadium levels were up to seven times higher than levels deemed safe for residential soil by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

The Congressional Research Service, the non-partisan research arm of the Library of Congress, drew anger from two legislators after it issued an unfavorable report on their coal ash bills (S. 3512 and H.R. 2273). Sen. John Hoeven (R-ND) and Rep. David McKinley (R-WV) have aggressively pursued the CRS since early December, after it gave both bills a failing grade, finding their weaknesses “unprecedented” in environmental law.

In the aftermath of a major catastrophe, lawmakers and regulators should be held accountable to create new safety protocols to avert future disasters. Incidents like the Cuyahoga River catching fire and the Exxon Valdez oil spill prompted changes in how we protect our nation’s waters from industrial chemicals. The Buffalo Creek disaster in West Virginia in 1972 likewise prompted changes to the regulation of dams storing toxic materials.

Fed up with the illegal dumping of toxic waste in their communities, a group of concerned citizens from Guayama and Salinas, Puerto Rico, Comité Dialogo Ambiental (CDA), has drawn a line in the sand. CDA will take AES Corporation—theVirginia-based energy giant—to federal court unless it meets the group’s demands and stops the dangerous dumping of toxic waste from its Guayama power plant.

Each year millions of gallons of toxic chemicals flow into lakes, streams, rivers and bays from our nation’s “surface impoundments”—often referred to as “coal ash” ponds. The well-documented result is the death and mutation of fish and wildlife. Recently, two senior scientists examined the damage from those ponds and put a price on their immense harm.

The House’s embrace of David McKinley’s (R-WV) amendment and its attachment to the transportation bill is nothing short of a deadly betrayal of public health. This measure ensures that the nation’s dangerous and leaking coal ash ponds and landfills will continue to operate indefinitely without regulation or federal oversight. If it passes the Senate, it may be the most effective protection of Big Coal ever enacted by Congress.

Across the country, communities near retiring coal plants are breathing collective sighs of relief. Closures, however, raise vexing questions about the millions of tons of toxic waste that may lie beneath the surface. Over decades, most plants have buried battleship-sized deposits of coal ash in landfills and lagoons near their plants. In the absence of federal mandates, utilities may leave behind a leaking legacy of deadly pollution, even after the belching stacks are long gone.

On Tuesday, Virginia attorney Ted G. Yoakam, representing nearly 400 people living near the Battlefield Golf Club in Chesapeake, refiled a lawsuit against Dominion Virginian Power, MJM Golf LLC (the owner of the golf course) and two additional parties involved in building the course, requesting more than $2 billion in damages. 

The arrogance and disregard for public health of the Virginia-based power giant, AES Corporation, is stunning. In 2002, AES, one of the world’s largest power companies, built a coal-fired power plant in Guayama, Puerto Rico without a solid waste landfill of any kind. Although the 450-MW power plant churns out almost 400,000 tons of toxic coal ash a year, AES has nowhere to safely dispose of the waste. Yet the situation is apparently working out just fine for AES.

Several House members and right-wing bloggers believed they struck gold after House members indulged in a bit of chicanery at an April 15th Environment and Energy subcommittee hearing on a bill to remove EPA’s authority to establish strong coal ash regulations. The ruse started when Rep. Cory Gardner (R, CO) excerpted a single sentence from a 242-page Regulatory Impact Analysis prepared by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on its proposed rule to regulate disposal of coal ash.  

“We all have a responsibility to ensure that the American people have facts and the truth in front of them, particularly when fictions are pushed by special interests with an investment in the outcome.”  - EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson in testimony before Congress on March 10 in response to false claims by Republicans and special interest groups concerning the reach and impact of proposed regulations.

When members of the House of Representatives return to their districts for April recess, many should be called to task for supporting a budget rider that would kill a coal ash rulemaking designed to protect the health, homes and livelihood of their constituents.

The highwaymen of the 112th Congress are trying to take away the authority of the EPA and rob the will of the people on a variety of critical public health and environmental issues by attaching riders to the House budget bill (the Continuing Resolution). The spending legislation introduced by the House Appropriations Committee this week would not only slash billions of dollars from programs protecting public health by ensuring clean water and air, but it would also undo or block key environmental initiatives.

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