Eco Policy Blog: New policy to clean up coal’s trash

October 26, 2011

This is a containment facility for coal ash – a by-product created when coal is burned for electricity. Maybe you’ve never considered the stuff. I hadn’t until it started appearing in the news recently. Like most environmental problems in the US, coal ash didn’t become a national issue until this high-profile accident in Tennessee in 2008 demonstrated the potential destruction of this material. The risk isn’t only in Tennessee. Virginia is a large coal producer – the 13th producer in weight in the states in 2009.

In response to the attention brought on by the accident in Tennessee, Congress is racing the EPA to produce a policy to regulate the disposal of coal ash. Last week, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the “Coal Residuals Reuse and Management Act” (H.R. 2273) that would give each state the authority to implement a permitting plan for disposal of coal ash as non-hazardous waste. The bill is an attempt to preempt much stricter proposed EPA regulations that would classify coal ash as a type of hazardous waste.

I was surprised to read that the disposal of the dangerous coal by-product is currently unregulated. Companies are no longer allowed to release ash into the atmosphere, but how they contain or dispose of it hasn’t been touched by the national government. Unregulated, the ash is usually stored in landfills, wet or dry embankments (pits), or recycled into building materials. The accident in 2008 happened when a wet embankment gave way and billions of gallons of wet ash spilled into the river and people’s yards, destroying homes. The House bill requires coal landfills and ponds to be lined and groundwater monitored in the same manner as solid municipal waste (regular household garbage), requiring all landfills and impoundments to designed to hold a maximum weight of the material. The EPA proposal classifies coal ash as a hazardous waste. This differs from the House bill because the program is administered by the EPA, allows lined landfills but phases out wet and surface impoundments within 5 years, and requires 30 years after-care on closed sites.

In Virginia, eight of our 11 members of the House of Representatives voted in support of H.R. 2273. Three opposed it. To become law, the bill still needs to pass the Senate, comprised mostly of Democrats, and receive a signature from President Obama. Although support seems unlikely from Democrats who generally support stricter environmental regulations, there has already been bipartisan sponsorship of the identical Senate bill just introduced. Similarly, President Obama released this statement in opposition, but did not specifically threaten a veto.

Why is this so important? According to the energy industry, we will pay higher energy bills due to the harsher regulations for hazardous waste. They also warn that the ash recycling business would be hit, raising prices for things like roads, bricks, bowling balls that recycle coal ash. But environmental groups point to the heavy metals and carcinogens in the material, and the devastation in Tennessee. The EPA estimates there are 600 dams constructed similarly to the one that collapsed – 50 of them “high-hazard” for collapse. The debris has potential to poison drinking water, aquatic environments or dry up portions of river.

For broader national policy, we will have to see if the exposed dangers of coal ash will inform decision making in favor of renewable energy.

Caitlin Kilpatrick
Master of Public Policy Candidate, Class of 2013
Thomas Jefferson Program in Public Policy

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