After Years Of White House Foot-Dragging, Toxic ‘Coal Ash’ May Finally Get Federal Regulations

CREDIT: Shutterstock


CREDIT: Shutterstock

Despite pressure from environmental groups and a ruling from a federal judge, the Obama Administration still hasn’t figured out what it wants to do about coal ash, National Journal reports.

A waste product from burning coal at power plants, coal ash is often stored in liquified form in large containment ponds. And sometimes, those ponds break loose. Most famously, about 300 million gallons of coal ash slurry spilled out of a pond next to the Tennesee Valley Authority’s Kingston plant in 2008, covering about 400 acres of Roane County, Tennessee.

The event sparked enough outcry that Lisa Jackson — the incoming head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) at the time — promised a review of the existing rules for storing coal waste. By October of 2008, the EPA was ready to classify coal ash as a hazardous waste and to lay down binding federal standards for storing and disposing of it.

But first the proposal had to move through an office (OIRA) in the White House’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB). In 2009, OMB released its take on the rules, which gave equal credence to the option of classifying coal ash as nonhazardous — despite studies from Physicians for Social Responsibility, the National Research Council, and the EPA that found coal ash contains significant levels of carcinogens such as arsenic and other heavy metals, and poses “risks to human health and ecosystems.”

As National Journal points out, the Obama Administration was still pushing cap-and-trade legislation at the time to cut carbon emissions, and didn’t want to antagonize coal interests anymore than it already was.

But despite the changed circumstances since, nothing much happened after OMB released its version of the rules. Then a coalition of environmental organizations, led by Earthjustice, sued the EPA in 2012 to force it to finish the rules. In October of 2013, a federal judge ruled the agency had 60 days to set a deadline for finishing the rules.

“I continue to believe it is a matter of political convenience and weakness,” said Rena Steinzor, a University of Maryland law-school professor and the president of the Center for Progressive Reform, when National Journal asked her about the long-delayed rules. “I’m just waiting to hear about the next spill. It’s a disaster waiting to happen.”

Regulation of coal ash storage is currently left largely up to individual states, and House Republicans attempted this year to push through legislation that would’ve prevented the EPA from issuing any regulations at the federal level. And according to Earthjustice, EPA data shows there are 1,161 coal ash storage sites around the country, and at least 535 of the ponds operate without the liner needed to prevent the slurry from contaminating drinking water sources.