By Elizabeth Bewley, Tennessean Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON — In a win for the coal industry and utilities such as TVA, a House committee approved a bill Tuesday that would prevent federal regulation of coal ash as hazardous waste.
The EPA began pushing for regulation after a massive coal ash spill at TVA’s Kingston power plant in East Tennessee in December 2008. More than 5 million cubic yards of ash sludge poured through a broken dike into the Emory River and a lakeside neighborhood, covering 300 acres in sludge from 4 to 6 feet deep.
Cleanup of the Kingston spill is costing TVA more than $1 billion, and the giant public utility is spending another $1 billion to make improvements to ash storage facilities at coal-fired plants.
Only state limits
The House legislation would place coal ash in the same category as metal scrap, wastewater and household garbage, and would allow states to regulate it. Environmentalists say the ash should be federally regulated because it contains cancer-causing chemicals such as mercury and lead.
Tennesseans who live near the Kingston spill were tested for possible poisoning from the sludge.
Regulation proponents also say state regulation has failed and point to the TVA ash spill as proof that state inspectors cannot control the waste storage and disposal.
But Rep. John Shimkus, the Illinois Republican who is chairman of the Energy and Commerce subcommittee on environmental issues, said states don’t want federal interference.
“When it comes to oversight and protection from risks, there is no doubt it’s the government’s responsibility to check on these activities,” he said. “The question becomes, who is the appropriate monitor.”
Rep. Henry Waxman, the full committee’s top Democrat, called the legislation “one-sided” and said it would benefit utilities at the expense of public health. Lead, arsenic and other chemicals in coal ash cause cancer and other illnesses, he said.
“This bill won’t protect public health,” he said. “Disposal of toxic coal ash is a serious issue, and it deserves a more effective response than this bill offers.”
Waxman and other opponents of the bill say it doesn’t go far enough toward preventing spills like the one in Kingston. The bill would continue to allow dumping of coal ash in mines and ponds, where it contaminates air and groundwater, they argue.
The country’s power plants produce more than 130 million tons of coal ash annually, according to the American Coal Ash Association. Forty-three percent of that is recycled in concrete, bricks, carpeting, bathroom counters and other products. The rest is stored in landfills and holding ponds.
TVA has ash sludge ponds at some of its coal-fired power plants, including Gallatin and Cumberland City, and spreads dry ash in containment fields at others.
In June last year, the EPA proposed two options for regulating the waste. One would deem it hazardous and require federal oversight. The other, less stringent option would put states in charge.
Industry representatives and some Republicans have argued that labeling the waste hazardous would saddle the industry with costly regulations, exhaust existing landfill space, raise utility costs for consumers, and stigmatize the use of coal ash in commercial products.
All of that would cost jobs, they say.
If the bill is approved by the full committee, it will move to the House floor. Waxman said the bill has little chance of passing the Senate, which is controlled by Democrats.
TVA customers are paying an average 69 cents a month each until 2024 to cover the cost of the cleanup at Kingston.
Contact Elizabeth Bewley at firstname.lastname@example.org. Tennessean staff writer Anne Paine contributed to this report.