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As the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) prepares to regulate coal ash, the waste product of coal-burning power plants, it confirmed Thursday that ash is polluting local waters at 18 sites across the US.
The Environmental Integrity Project (EIP) announced the EPA’s findings in a report that maintains there are at least 20 other locations where coal ash is contaminating local groundwater. In a statement, EIP Director Eric Schaeffer said, “EPA’s list of polluting coal ash dumps barely scratches the surface.”
This comes after House Republicans successfully passed a bill in July, in a 265-155 vote largely along party lines, that would preclude federal regulation of ash and leave it to the states.
Regulation is already largely left to the states, Lisa Evans, Senior Administrative Counsel at Earthjustice said in an email, and “as a result, the nation is a patchwork of programs, with many states imposing few, and sometimes, no, regulatory safeguards.” As ThinkProgress has reported, federal coal ash regulation would create jobs in addition to safeguarding health.
The House bill, H.R. 2218, purports to give states greater authority to regulate coal waste but even its supporters recognize its aim of preventing EPA regulation. Republicans framed the bill as a way to avoid the costs of federal regulation. Rep. John Shimkus (R-IL) told The Hill that opposing the measure means “less durable, more expensive highways, schools, and green buildings.”
Evans said the bill would prohibit the EPA from ever setting a minimum standard for coal ash disposal. The bill “intentionally fails to define key terms and set deadlines, which would give states the flexibility to exempt units and allow the current norm of leaking units, poorly maintained dams and contaminated groundwater to continue unabated.”
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) started the motion necessary to have the bill considered by the Senate, but Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA), who chairs the Senate Environment committee, wrote a strongly-worded letter to colleagues opposing it. “I will oppose this bill at every turn because, if it became law, coal ash would continue to pose a grave threat to public health and safety,” her letter read in part.
Boxer went on to invoke 2008’s Kingston, Tennessee tar ash spill, where about a billion gallons of liquefied ash from a Tennessee Valley Authority coal plant poured out over 400 acres, destroying and damaging homes, and contaminating rivers including the Emory and Clinch. A 2010 Physicians for Social Responsibility and Earthjustice report on coal ash named arsenic, lead, mercury, cadmium, chromium and selenium as typical components, which “can cause cancer and neurological damage in humans,” and harm and kill wildlife.
Rep. Shimkus, for his part, disagrees that there are negative health effects from coal ash pollution. “Three decades of science point the other way, that coal ash is not hazardous,” he told The Hill.