Thursday, July 21, 2011


From today's Tennessean...

Coal ash: headed for your landfill?
House undercuts EPA effort to reach answer on waste

After the 2008 Kingston, Tenn., coal ash disaster, there was hope that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency would finally address the dangers associated with toxic coal ash waste.

That hope began to fade when EPA published an ambivalent draft rule more than a year ago. Although EPA has engaged in a rigorous process of evaluating the law, science and economics of coal ash regulations while reviewing the substantial public input in response to last spring’s proposal, actual progress toward a final rule of any kind is slow, and some in Congress want progress to stop entirely.

Coal ash, the waste left behind after coal is burned, is laden with heavy metals such as mercury, arsenic, chromium and selenium. For generations, coal ash has been dumped in unlined ponds and landfills where toxic substances enter ground and surface water. In spring 2010, EPA proposed two regulatory options to address this problem: One would treat coal ash as hazardous waste, the other would merely issue voluntary guidelines that utilities could choose to ignore without threat of federal enforcement.

EPA’s final rule is still pending, as they consider thousands of scientific documents and hundreds of thousands of public comments, including many from Tennesseans expressing personal understanding of the need to comprehensively regulate coal ash.

Now, instead of letting EPA finish the process, Congress is engaging in politically motivated attempts to undermine the agency’s work. Last week, the U.S. House of Representatives’ Energy and Commerce Committee passed a bill to prohibit EPA from adequately dealing with coal ash. Committee member Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., is supporting the charge against coal ash regulation, which comes as no surprise given her staunch anti-environmental views, but, given the dozens of risky coal ash sites in this state, is directly opposed to the interests of Tennesseans.

Congress’ unnecessary intrusion not only pre-empts the rulemaking process before completion, it also undermines critical scientific inquiry and transparency inherent in the EPA process. The votes of Rep. Blackburn and others on the committee are an affront to residents of Tennessee who experienced firsthand the disastrous 2008 Tennessee Valley Authority Kingston coal ash spill and still face damage and threats from other coal ash sites across the state.

Citizen groups form

Make no mistake: People in Tennessee have been vocal about their concerns. A group in East Tennessee held a public meeting last fall unanimously calling for strong hazardous-waste regulations; hundreds more attended an EPA-sponsored hearing in Knoxville. In Middle Tennessee, a group has formed in Humphreys County, in part to investigate the impacts of coal ash from TVA’s New Johnsonville plant. A state bill was recently offered in Nashville to improve control of the dozens of risky coal ash sites in the state, but was stymied by interference from the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce.

Some institutions, including the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce, utilities that produce coal ash and anti-environmental crusaders like Rep. Blackburn flatly oppose rules to tightly regulate the waste. Yet, whether or not you support strict coal ash protections, and whether or not you live near one of Tennessee’s many ash ponds, you should reject the idea of congressional action to undermine the rulemaking processes.

It is simply unacceptable for Congress to ignore science and the voices of people from Kingston, New Johnsonville and other communities burdened by coal ash.