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House votes to strip EPA of authority over coal ash

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CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The House of Representatives on Friday passed legislation authored by Rep. David McKinley, R-W.Va., to block creation of tough new nationwide regulations on the handling and disposal of toxic ash from coal-fired power plants.

The measure passed by a vote of 267-144, with 37 Democrats voting in favor of it. Along with McKinley, the bill was co-sponsored by Reps. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., and Nick J. Rahall, D-W.Va.

McKinley promoted his legislation as a way to block what he believes is more excessive regulation by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and to protect companies that recycle coal ash into other products.

"This is not a time for people who dislike fossil fuels to be pushing their own ideology and philosophy," McKinley said Friday morning on the House floor, during early debate on the measure.

While pushing the coal-ash legislation, McKinley has received nearly $200,000 in campaign contributions this election cycle in mining industry donations -- the most of any member of Congress, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. McKinley has also received nearly $50,000 from the electric utility sector, the center said.

Opponents of the coal-ash bill said it, if eventually made law, would stop EPA efforts to regulate more strictly a mounting coal industry threat to public health and the environment.

Lisa Evans, a coal-ash expert with the group Earthjustice, said that McKinley's bill "neuters the EPA's effort to establish the first ever federal regulations for toxic coal ash, America's second-largest industrial waste stream."

Earlier this week, the White House stopped short of threatening a veto, but said the legislation "undermines the federal government's ability to ensure that requirements for management and disposal of coal combustion residuals are protective of human health and the environment."

Coal-fired power plants generate more than 130 million tons of various ash wastes every year. The numbers have been increasing as more plants install scrubbers and other equipment to control air pollution, but shift the toxic leftovers from burning coal into ash and other wastes.

No single national program sets up a concrete regulatory plan for the handling of those "coal combustion wastes." Instead, the nation relies on a patchwork of state programs that vary in terms of their standards and their level of enforcement.

The issue simmered for years, with little focus from political leaders, until the spill of a billion gallons of coal ash -- containing an estimated 2.9 million pounds of toxic pollutants -- from a Tennessee Valley Authority plant in eastern Tennessee in December 2008. The spill covered more than 300 acres and damaged more than two dozen homes, along with roads, rail lines and utilities. TVA estimated the cleanup would cost between $933 million and $1.2 billion and take two to three years to complete.

The TVA disaster brought new calls for regulation, and led to a barrage of new data and reports detailing potential problems with coal-ash impoundment stability and contamination of water supplies from unlined or leaking disposal sites.

The key language in McKinley's bill would block EPA from issuing new regulations that would put the federal agency in charge of setting and enforcing coal-ash handling and disposal regulations. McKinley prefers an industry-backed approach that would leave states in charge.

But so far, the Obama EPA has not indicated that it would even pursue that tougher form of regulation. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson instead issued a regulatory proposal that said that agency was also considering a weaker approach that would allow states to enforce coal-ash rules as long as they followed EPA guidelines.

In March, EPA announced it did not plan to finalize its coal-ash rules in 2011. It's not clear when the agency does plan to issue a final rule.

McKinley's legislation now goes to the Senate.

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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