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Years after Tenn. disaster, coal-ash rules still stalled

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Four years ago Saturday, a coal-ash dike ruptured at the Tennessee Valley Authority's Kingston Plant west of Knoxville, Tenn.

More than a billion gallons of wet ash from the coal-fired power plant poured into nearby streams, fields and homes. The spill covered 300 acres, made three homes uninhabitable and damaged roads, rail lines and utilities.

The disaster turned up the heat on a long-simmering controversy over major loopholes in the way the nation regulates the handling and disposal of millions of tons of ash generated every year by coal-fired power plants.

President Obama and his U.S. Environmental Protection Agency promised to issue the first-ever comprehensive federal regulations. But today, the EPA plan remains stalled, while coalfield congressional representatives continue to seek legislation to ensure the agency can't ever move forward.

"The EPA's delay has allowed the industry to continue pouring dangerous pollutants into leaking dumps that drain into groundwater, and sometimes into wetlands, creeks or rivers that are fed by the aquifers underneath coal ash dumps," said Eric Schaeffer, a former EPA staffer whose group, the Environmental Integrity Project, has been urging federal action on coal-ash rules. "The evidence is in and the election is over. What are the EPA and the White House waiting for?"

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, a move that shifts 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.

On Friday, Schaeffer's group issued a new report that said coal plants deposited 218 million tons of ash or scrubber sludge into ponds or landfills between 2009 and 2011, the three years immediately following the Dec. 22, 2008, incident in Tennessee.

"Based on industry reports submitted to the Toxics Release Inventory, the waste disposed of by power plants over that three-year period contained more than a billion pounds of arsenic and other toxic metals that are concentrated in the residues from coal combustion," the report said. "About a third of those toxins in coal wastes were dumped in ponds, and the rest in landfills."

Soon after taking office, EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson promised that her agency would publish a proposed rule before the end of 2009.

When Jackson did issue a proposal, in June 2010, EPA officials did not settle on a particular strategy. Instead, EPA sought public comments on one approach that would regulate coal ash as a hazardous waste, with nationwide regulations, oversight and enforcement, and an alternative that would leave actual regulation mostly up to the states. EPA has not finalized either approach nor provided a timeline for when it might do so.

In Congress, coalfield legislators -- led by Rep. David McKinley, R-W.Va. -- have pushed for a measure that would block the EPA from instituting a strong national coal-ash regulatory program. Reps. Nick J. Rahall, D-W.Va., and Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., are co-sponsors of the measure. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., is co-sponsoring a Senate version.

McKinley has promoted his bill by saying, "For the first time, we have a solution for the safe disposal and reuse of coal ash under federal oversight."

But in a report issued earlier this month, the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service disagreed.

The report concluded it was far from clear that states would do a good job regulating coal ash, a "level of uncertainty" that "defeats the purpose" of the legislation. The report also noted the legislation "provides no federal backstop authority" if states don't act appropriately, creates a program without "detailed regulatory standards," and no deadline for states to ensure compliance.

"The Congressional Research Service has confirmed what we've known all along," said Lisa Evans, a coal-ash expert with the group Earthjustice. "Congress must get out of the way and let EPA do its job."

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


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