MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- A bill aimed at stopping the Obama administration from trying to reclassify coal ash as a hazardous waste has cleared a second hurdle in the U.S. House of Representatives.
The Coal Residuals Reuse and Management Act is the first bill from West Virginia's freshman Republican, Rep. David McKinley. It passed out of the Energy and Commerce Committee on a vote of 35-12 Wednesday night, with support from six Democrats.
The Sierra Club recently picketed McKinley's Morgantown office over the bill, arguing it could strip the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency of the power to protect people from the toxins in coal ash.
McKinley defends the bill as a jobs-protection measure.
Coal ash contains arsenic, selenium, lead, cadmium, and mercury, but it's used in the construction and agriculture industries for products such as concrete, drywall and fertilizers. McKinley contends his bill ensures those continued beneficial uses and argues "the science proves it is non-hazardous."
"This bill will prevent hundreds of dollars in increased electricity costs, stop hundreds of thousands of job losses, and strengthen and protect public health," he said in a statement after the vote.
McKinley's district is home to millions of tons of coal ash dumped in strip mines and ponds, and his office in a retail center sits in the shadow of a power plant.
Critics say the bill is designed to benefit utility companies and architectural and engineering firms, noting that McKinley owns such a firm in Wheeling.
The Sierra Club questions McKinley's loyalties, and the Environmental Integrity Project issued a report this week that says he has reported more than $200,000 in political donations from mining and electric power interests.
More than a third of the money came from four coal operators: Morgantown-based MEPCO, $32,200; Virginia-based Alpha Natural Resources, $17,000; Scott Depot-based International Coal Group, $15,900; and St. Louis-based Patriot Coal, $10,000.
The Sierra Club, which is suing Ohio-based FirstEnergy over a fly ash waste site along the Cheat River at its Mon Power plant in Albright, acknowledges there are appropriate uses for fly ash. It argues, however, that too much "hides behind that designation" and is simply being dumped on mine lands to fill holes.
Coal companies use ash in reclamation projects, dumping it in vast pits then covering it with soil. People who live near those sites worry about heavy metals and other contaminants leaching out.