EPA’s recommendations on coal ash the focus of dispute

As the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) ponders how waste from coal-firing plants should be classified, the debate on how best to regulate the toxic material heats up. Here is one more view on The Coal Ash Case, from The New York Times.

Editorial: The Coal Ash Case
Published January 19, 2010, The New York Times

Just more than a year ago, one billion tons of toxic coal sludge broke loose from a containment pond belonging to the Tennessee Valley Authority, burying hundreds of acres of Roane County in eastern Tennessee and threatening local water supplies and air quality. The Environmental Protection Agency immediately promised new national standards governing the disposal of coal ash to replace a patchwork of uneven — and in many cases weak — state regulations.

The agency’s recommendations, which have not been made public, are now the focus of a huge dispute inside the Obama administration, with industry lobbying hard for changes that would essentially preserve the status quo. The dispute should be resolved in favor of the environment and public safety.

America’s power plants produce 130 million tons of coal ash a year, enough to fill a train of boxcars stretching from the District of Columbia to Australia. Some of this is usefully, safely and profitably recycled to make concrete and other construction materials. Much of it winds up in lightly regulated landfills, some as big as 1,500 acres, where toxic pollutants like arsenic and lead can leach into the water table.

One internal E.P.A. proposal suggested reclassifying coal ash as a hazardous material subject to federal regulation. It also recommended national standards requiring safe, sturdy disposal facilities. Industry counterattacked, arguing that the hazardous designation would ruin the recycling market and could trigger burdensome new investments. It also argued for continued state control, with the federal government providing “guidance.”

These arguments do not hold up. The recycling market will not disappear. Materials that are responsibly recycled are not, typically, designated as hazardous. The real problem is the 60 percent or so of the coal ash that winds up in porous landfills. Evidence suggests that tough but carefully tailored rules could encourage even more recycling, protecting the environment while yielding income to help pay for more secure landfills.

This debate is being conducted behind closed doors, mainly at the Office of Management and Budget, where industry usually takes its complaints and horror stories. A better course would be to let the E.P.A. draft a proposal, get it out in the open and offer it for comment from all sides. The Obama administration promised that transparency and good science would govern decisions like these.