Next on Republicans’ list: EPA’s proposed coal-ash rule

The House will likely approve a bill Friday to block the Environmental Protection Agency from issuing its first-ever regulations restricting how utilities can dispose of coal ash.

In the wake of incidents in which of coal-ash storage lakes failed and released toxic chemicals into surrounding areas, the EPA has proposed to regulate ash disposal in one of two ways: The agency could classify it under a federal law on hazardous waste management, or let states regulate it as a non-hazardous waste.

Utilities prefer the non-hazardous option and environmental groups prefer the hazardous option, which they say would regulate coal ash disposal far more strictly.

So-called coal combustion residuals contain a range of toxic chemicals, including chromium, arsenic and lead, that environmentalists say can get into groundwater if the structures holding the ash fail. A recent report from Earthjustice, an environmental law firm based in Oakland, Calif., ranks Texas among the states whose coal-disposal methods harm the environment the most.

Sponsored by Rep. David McKinley, R-W.Va., the bill would block the EPA from issuing its rule and instead let states regulate coal-ash disposal no less stringently than rules for municipal waste landfills. If states choose not to set up a program, they could notify the EPA and let the agency run a similar program.

“Their proposed coal ash rule will not only hurt coal, but it will also damage dozens of other industries and eliminate jobs across the country,” McKinley said in a recent statement. Republicans have pointed to utility-fronted research showing the EPA rule could cost up to 316,000 jobs.

He opposes classifying coal ash as hazardous waste, and instead says states have found a way to regulate municipal waste effectively as non-hazardous waste under the law under which EPA would regulate coal ash.

But unlike House Republicans’ recent symbolic efforts to block EPA rules as part of their jobs agenda, this bill is hardly guaranteed to die after that.

For starters, when the bill cleared a House panel over the summer, it got support from one-third of the committee’s Democrats.

Moreover, Republicans and several coal-state Democrats have said they don’t want the EPA to regulate coal ash as a hazardous waste. They have said they want EPA to choose the non-hazardous option as soon as possible to remove uncertainty for businesses. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson had said in March the agency wouldn’t issue a final rule this year.

The hazardous waste option “would permanently damage the beneficial use market,” which includes such applications as concrete, 46 senators including 12 Democrats wrote to the EPA in a letter earlier this year.

The White House has said it opposes the bill but has stopped short of issuing a veto threat.

Top Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee contend that McKinley’s bill would, among other things, fail to set any coal-ash disposal legal standards for states to follow and not guarantee the structures holding the ash could hold up in the long term.

The bill would also allow for coal-ash sites that are designed to leak as much as five times more arsenic into groundwater than the law currently allows, according to a new study by the Environmental Integrity Project, a Washington-based environmental group.

Additionally, environmentalists say McKinley bases his claim that coal ash isn’t hazardous on a testing procedure that they contend underestimates how much toxic material can leak from the ash.

Environmentalists also are touting independent research they say debunks industry claims of up to 316,000 jobs being lost from the rule.

Tufts University energy economist Walt Ackerman found EPA’s regulation could create a net 28,000 jobs. Most of the job loss found in the industry report “rests on a single numerical estimate in an unpublished academic paper, ignoring the cautions and qualifications from the paper’s author about how to interpret his findings,” Ackerman said in his paper.

“Unfounded industry claims about the burdens of finally having to clean up their mess are simply misguided cries that the sky is falling,” Lisa Evans, senior administrative counsel at Earthjustice, said in a statement. “In fact, setting strong, federally enforceable regulations for coal ash that protect communities and get coal ash out of our drinking water are exactly what this country needs during these tough economic times.”