Congress takes a step toward regulating coal waste, but what about the EPA?
A bill aimed at reining in mountaintop-removal coal mining has been reintroduced in the House. The Clean Water Protection Act, sponsored by Reps. Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.), Dave Reichert (R-Wash.), and John Yarmuth (D-Ky.), would outlaw the dumping of mining waste into streams, which would make it significantly more difficult for mining companies to blast off the tops of mountains.
The legislation, which was first introduced in 2007, now has 117 cosponsors. It would reverse regulatory changes by the Bush administration that made it legal for mining companies to dump waste in waterways. Since those changes were made in 2002, 2,000 miles of Appalachian streams have been buried by massive amounts of mine waste from mountaintop removal in Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia.
“The dangerous precedent set by the Bush administration’s rule change undermines the Clean Water Act,” said Pallone in announcing the bill.
The bill never made it to a vote in the last Congress, but activists think it might have a better chance this year. They point to a new surge of anti-coal activism and increased public awareness of coal-waste issues in the wake of the big coal-ash spill at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Kingston plant in Harriman, Tenn., in December.
Whither coal ash?
Environmental activists are also pushing for a federal crackdown on coal ash, which is stored around the country in waste ponds like the one that ruptured in Tennessee. The ponds are not currently subject to federal regulation, and oversight rules vary by state.
EPA administrator Lisa Jackson said at her confirmation hearing in January that she would have the agency assess the hundreds of coal-ash storage sites around the country, but so far there’s been no official word from the EPA on what it’s planning to do, and activists are getting anxious.
On Tuesday, 109 green groups — from national giants like the Sierra Club and NRDC to grassroots organizations around the country — sent a letter to Jackson urging her to get moving on regulation of coal-ash waste.
“We need action, and we needed it last week. We needed it years ago,” Chris Irwin, staff attorney for United Mountain Defense, told Grist. “A lot of these [coal-ash] dams and stuff we have around are ticking time bombs.”
“There’s already been an incredible amount of damage done,” he said, citing the costs to community members in Harriman and the TVA’s estimate that full cleanup of the mess could cost $825 million. “The last thing we need is for another of these [spills] to happen, or another two.”
Contacted for response to the letter, a spokesperson for Jackson’s office told Grist, “This is an issue which Administrator Jackson is very committed to, and which she is reviewing carefully.”
UPDATE: Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), chair of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, and Thomas Carper (D-Del.), chair of the Subcommittee on Clean Air and Nuclear Safety, introduced a Senate resolution on Wednesday afternoon calling on the EPA to act on coal ash. The resolution directs the agency to conduct immediate reviews and inspections of all coal-ash impoundments and draft rules to regulate coal-combustion waste under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.
“We cannot afford to have another tragedy like the recent TVA ash spill that threatened public health and safety,” said Carper in a statement. “The time has come for the Environmental Protection Agency to give industry the guidelines it needs to safely store this hazardous waste.”