At Congressional Hearing, Coal Ash Bill Fails on All Fronts

House subcommittee hearing considers “unprecedented” bill that cannot protect public health


Jared Saylor, Earthjustice, (202) 745-5213

A House subcommittee heard today from coal ash experts who reiterated that legislation proposed last year by Rep. David McKinley (R-WV, 1st) would not provide the minimum standards “necessary to protect human health and the environment.”

In 2008, one billion gallons of toxic coal ash spilled from the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Kingston Fossil Plant. The spill covered 300 acres, destroyed homes, poisoned rivers and contaminated coves and residential drinking waters. (TVA)

Lisa Evans, senior administrative counsel at Earthjustice and mining safety expert Jack Spadaro testified before the House Subcommittee on Energy and Environment, Committee on Energy and Commerce, against a draft of the “Coal Ash Recycling and Oversight Act of 2013.”

The draft is modeled on two bills proposed in the House of Representatives and the Senate, which the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service (CRS) described as “unprecedented” in environmental law. A second CRS report released on March 19 reiterated that this legislation falls short of providing the necessary standards to protect public health. If passed into law, this newly drafted bill would prevent the Environmental Protection Agency from ever setting federally enforceable safeguards for the disposal of toxic coal ash.

“Without a doubt, when mismanaged, coal ash harms Americans nationwide by poisoning water and air and by threatening the very existence of communities living near high hazard dams,” Evans said at the hearing. “We must work together to establish regulations that foremost prevent injury to health and ensure the safety of all communities.”

Coal ash has already contaminated more than 200 lakes, streams, rivers, creeks, and aquifers across the country, drinking waters used by millions of communities and households. Ms. Evans also noted that this was not a decreasing trend, as scientific evidence of ground and surface water contamination has increased 25-fold since 1999. The damage caused by coal ash also falls more heavily on America’s most vulnerable communities, including communities of color and low-income communities.

While the legislation removes the EPA’s authority to establish coal ash regulations, the proposed bill itself does not offer a workable national scheme to address toxic ash. The bill does not require the phase out of dangerous wet impoundments, does not set any deadlines for states to issue permits, and does not require closure of coal ash dumps that continue to pollute groundwater. Because the proposed bill does not set minimum federal standards for coal ash disposal, states can implement permit programs that fail to protect public health and drinking water. The bill also does not mandate a safety standard that would prevent another disaster like the billion-gallon coal ash spill at Tennessee Valley Authority’s Kingston Fossil Plant in 2008.

“Both CRS reports explicitly conclude that under the novel and unprecedented approach of the bills, ‘[e]ach state arguably could apply its own standard of protection,’” Evans wrote in her testimony to the committee. “The practical impact of the failure to establish a protective standard is quite simply that state regulations would not necessarily be required to protect human health and the environment.”

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