Climate

House Passes Bill That Would Allow Toxic Coal Ash Into Groundwater

CREDIT: AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

The Republican-led House of Representatives struck another blow to environmental regulation Wednesday night, passing a bill that will undercut the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) coal ash regulations, opponents said.

Several key provisions in the EPA’s coal ash disposal rule — set to go into effect in October — would be either left to states to enforce or thrown out altogether under H.R. 1734, the “Improving Coal Combustion Residuals Regulation Act.”

“There are very big differences [between the bill and the EPA rule] that have huge impacts on public safety,” Lisa Evans, an attorney with Earthjustice, told ThinkProgress. Among the differences, she said, is the fact that the EPA rule prohibits disposing coal ash waste directly into the water supply, while the House bill does not. In a survey the EPA did of state laws on coal ash, only five of the 25 states surveyed specifically prohibited disposing of coal ash into groundwater, Evans said.

“It makes absolutely no sense,” Evans said of the bill, noting that even household waste can’t be legally disposed into aquifers. “It’s absurd and its unreasonable.”

The bill also delays implementation of coal ash disposal restrictions, allows utilities to avoid publicly posting contamination data, and allows companies to continue dumping coal ash into leaking surface impounds for as many as eight years after contamination is documented.

Coal ash is a byproduct of coal-fired power plants, and often contains toxic chemicals like arsenic, chromium, mercury, and lead. It is also the second-largest form of waste generated in the United States. Coal ash has earned headlines — and increased regulation — in recent years, particularly after a massive spill in the Dan River in North Carolina in 2014.

One of the most common ways companies dispose of coal ash is by storing it in man-made ponds or lagoons, of which there are hundreds across the country. The EPA’s first-ever coal ash rule, which requires all new coal ash pits to be lined and calls for some of the hundreds of old, unlined pits to be cleaned up, was criticized by environmentalists for not reaching far enough when it was released in December.

H.R. 1734 is the latest attempt to put coal ash regulation in the hands of the states, Nat Mund, legislative director for the Southern Environmental Law Center, told ThinkProgress.

“Our states don’t have a good track record of this issue,” Mund said.

Previous iterations of the bill — introduced over the last few years — had been predicated on the EPA’s lack of a coal ash rule, which created uncertainty for utilities, Mund said. “With the rule having been finalized, a lot of that uncertainty disappears,” he pointed out.

Several amendments to the bill were proposed Wednesday, including one by Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ) to reinstate the public information component. The EPA rule specifies what information must be available and how it would be posted. Under the Pallone amendment, utilities would have had “to maintain pages on their websites that document their compliance with a wide range of the criteria in the rule, including inspections and groundwater monitoring data,” Pallone said when it was introduced. Under the bill, utilities can sidestep that requirement.

That amendment, as well as others, failed. Pallone noted that amendments were not sufficient for improving the bill, though. “Even if they were all adopted, the bill would still be unnecessary and a dangerous precedent for public health,” he said on the House floor.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. David McKinley (R-WV), passed Wednesday night 258 – 166. One Republican voted against, and 19 Democrats voted in favor of the bill.

“The bottom line is whether we should place our trust in the states or the federal government to manage this waste byproduct. We should be a nation of laws, not one governed by regulations,” McKinley said in a statement following the bill’s passage.

One bright side for the bill’s opponents, though, is that the Obama administration announced this week that if the bill were to make it to the president’s desk — there is already a companion bill in the Senate — he would veto it.

“We were very pleased to see the strong statement from the Obama adminstration,” Earthjustice’s Evans said. “It’s an incredibly important position to take.”