Two Years Past, Federal Coal Ash Protections Still in Limbo, Congress on the Attack

Amendment to must-pass transportation legislation contains unrelated coal ash “rider”


Jared Saylor, Earthjustice, (202) 745-5213

Two years ago this week, the EPA proposed the first-ever federal standards for coal ash disposal and storage. The announcement came 18 months after the largest toxic waste spill in our nation’s history when a coal ash pond collapsed in Kingston, TN. The EPA held eight public hearings across the country, receiving over 450,000 public comments calling for strong coal ash protections. Despite the support, the proposed coal ash rules remain in limbo as Congress aggressively pushes for drastic and dangerous limits on cleaning up hundreds of coal ash dumps found in nearly every state.

View Map Data

Although scientific evidence proves that coal ash has already contaminated waters at nearly 200 sites, the House of Representatives passed an amendment last month to the massive transportation bill, must-pass legislation that provides funding for road improvements and maintenance and creates over 2 million American jobs. The House is going to vote tomorrow on a procedural effort to push House and Senate conferees on the bill to include the bad coal ash amendment. The amendment prevents the EPA from ever setting any federal coal ash standard and instead relies on ineffective state regulations. Household garbage would be better regulated than toxic coal ash if this amendment is signed into law.

“In the two years since the EPA’s proposal, coal ash continues to contaminate drinking water supplies in hundreds of communities,” said Earthjustice attorney Lisa Evans. “Not only is the rule being delayed, some members of Congress are actively seeking to scuttle necessary health protections in favor of corporate polluters. This is not only dangerous, it’s shameful.”

In June 2010, the EPA published two coal ash regulations for coal ash ponds and landfills. Coal-fired power plants preferred a weaker, voluntary approach that classified coal ash as non-hazardous under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act; environmental and public health groups favored the stronger option that would establish federal minimum standards enforceable by EPA and require the phase out of all wet storage ponds like the impoundment that collapsed in Tennessee.

“The House bill would block any federal standards to protect people from unsafe coal ash dumpsites while keeping the power industry safe from any threat that EPA might take enforcement action to require cleanup,” said Eric Schaeffer, executive director at Environmental Integrity Project. “The argument that this is about coal ash ‘recycling’ is a transparently phony one.”

On Thursday, environmental and community groups in Florida, Michigan, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Montana will be mobilizing their members to call upon elected officials to remove the coal ash amendment to the transportation bill and get out of the way of the EPA to set federally enforceable safeguards for coal ash. Delay and obfuscation means more communities are at risk of contamination from arsenic, lead, mercury, selenium, chromium and other toxic chemicals found in waters contaminated by coal ash.

Coal ash is the toxic byproduct of coal fired power plants. Enough of this toxic waste is stored in ponds that it could flow over Niagara Falls for 4 days straight. Groundwater testing at various coal ash sites across the country has found dangerously toxic amounts of pollutants that can cause cancer, organ damage and even death. Despite the risk, few federal standards exist for coal ash disposal.

“Across the country toxic coal ash pollution has poisoned our drinking water,” said Mary Anne Hitt, director of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign. “When coal ash storage ponds fail, they can bury homes and property, as we saw four years ago in east Tennessee after the coal ash spill at a TVA coal plant. Rep. McKinley’s coal ash amendment recklessly endangers the health and safety of the thousands of Americans living near coal plants. Though multiple coal ash sites in his own district are contaminated with toxins, poisoning the communities nearby, he has chosen to protect polluters rather than American families.”

Additional Resources

About Earthjustice

Earthjustice is the premier nonprofit environmental law organization. We wield the power of law and the strength of partnership to protect people's health, to preserve magnificent places and wildlife, to advance clean energy, and to combat climate change. We are here because the earth needs a good lawyer.