Americans want strong protections against toxic coal ash — that’s why they submitted more than 450,000 public comments during the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) process to put long-overdue protections in place.

Unfortunately, Rep. David McKinley (R-W.Va.) recently introduced the Coal Residuals Reuse and Management Act of 2011 (H.R. 2273), which would handcuff EPA’s ability to move forward with strong coal ash disposal safeguards for our communities. And even worse, this bill is expected to come up for a vote this week.

Believe it or not, the banana peel you throw away has more robust protections on it than coal ash containing mercury, arsenic, hexavalent chromium, and lead. If this bill passes, that horrible status quo would become the law.

Reader support helps sustain our work. Donate today to keep our climate news free. All donations DOUBLED!

Coal ash is the abundant and dangerous waste left over after coal is burned. Our nation’s power plants generate 140 million tons of it every year. It’s the second-largest waste stream in the country, after municipal garbage! Despite having hazardous ingredients like mercury, coal ash has never been subject to any federal protections, and state laws governing disposal are usually weak or non-existent.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

This lack of protections made national headlines in 2008, when a TVA dam burst and spilled one billion gallons of coal ash (100x larger than the Exxon Valdez oil spill) into a beautiful small farming town in Tennessee. At the time, EPA chief Lisa Jackson vowed to put long-overdue, national coal ash protections in place. But the coal industry has met those proposed standards with fierce opposition and a blizzard of lobbying.

This isn’t just a problem in Tennessee. Across the country, billions of tons of coal ash have been dumped in enormous and precarious waste ponds, pits, landfills, and mines, putting human health at risk from large-scale disasters and gradual — yet equally dangerous — contamination as toxins in coal ash seep into drinking water sources.

Let me quote something shocking from a joint fact from Sierra Club, the Environmental Integrity Project, and Earthjustice:

In 2010, EPA published a risk assessment that found extremely high risks to human health and the environment from the disposal of coal ash in waste ponds and landfills. The chart below compares EPA’s findings on the cancer risk from arsenic in coal ash disposed in some unlined waste ponds to several other cancer risks, along with the highest level of cancer risk that EPA finds acceptable under current regulatory goals. The risk from coal ash is 2000 times that regulatory goal.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Coal ash risks

This is unacceptable, and it’s why we must oppose McKinley’s Coal Residuals Reuse and Management Act of 2011 (H.R. 2273). Passage of this bill would allow states to continue operating every leak-prone and high hazard toxic coal ash dump without requiring basic federal safeguards and virtually blocking EPA from stepping in to protect communities. 

H.R. 2273 would endanger the health and safety of thousands of communities, fail to stimulate coal ash recycling, and disrupt EPA’s public process that has been underway for over two years.

McKinley’s bill is about shielding coal companies and utilities from their responsibility to clean up sites they have contaminated — not about increasing the safe recycling of coal ash, and not about protecting communities.