CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The Obama administration has greatly overstated the possible economic benefits of recycling toxic coal ash, a move that is delaying - and could possibly scuttle altogether -- tougher regulations on the handling and disposal of power plant wastes, according to a report from a coalition of environmental groups.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is considering the new rules in the wake of the December 2008 collapse of a coal-ash impoundment in Tennessee and growing citizen concern about similar dumps around the nation.
Industry officials and some within the White House are concerned about one possible approach, in which EPA would label coal-ash a "hazardous waste" to be fully regulated under the federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.
Opponents say this path would hurt the market for reuse of coal ash in products like cement and wallboard. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., is among those who have complained to the EPA about the potential impacts.
Cost-benefit figures included in the EPA's rulemaking proposal estimate that coal-ash recycling is worth about $23 billion a year. However, that estimate is more than 20 times higher than the $1.15 billion the government's own data show is the correct bottom-line number, according to the new report issued this week by the Environmental Integrity Project, Earthjustice and the Stockholm Environmental Institute's U.S. Center at Tufts University.
"The deep flaws in the EPA cost-benefit analysis appear to have escaped scrutiny at the White House Office of Management and Budget, which required [the] EPA to include a weaker coal-ash proposal favored by utilities and some coal-ash recyclers," the groups said.
"Common sense and past experience indicate that stricter standards for disposal will work to increase, rather than decrease recycling," the groups said. "But either way, [the] EPA ought not to be intimidated into adopting weak rules based on grossly inflated values for coal-ash recycling."
Among the flaws identified by the environmental groups in the EPA's estimate: