Greens, citing Lake Michigan spill, call for Congress not to block EPA rule

Environmental groups are increasing pressure on Congress not to block the Environmental Protection Agency from handing down restrictions on coal-ash disposal, citing reports of an ash spill into Lake Michigan on Monday.

The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reported a portion of a bluff near a coal power plant in Wisconsin collapsed, sending dirt, mud and coal ash near the shoreline and ash-containing debris into the water. Republicans in the House, with a bill sponsored by Rep. David McKinley, R-W.Va., recently voted to block a proposed EPA rule for restricting coal-ash disposal and instead allow states to regulate it at least as strictly as municipal solid waste.

“This spill in the Great Lakes is a tragic reminder of why the status quo is not good enough,” Mary Anne Hitt, director of the Beyond Coal Campaign at the San Francisco-based Sierra Club, said in an emailed statement. “As long as Congress interferes, spills like this are going to happen, and dozens of communities are at risk. Congress needs to back off and allow the EPA to finalize strong protections.”

The EPA has proposed regulating coal either under federal hazardous-waste law, which would require stricter safeguards for coal-ash sites, or leaving it to the states. House Republicans are concerned classifying coal ash as a hazardous waste would cost thousands of jobs and raise electricity prices.

Coal ash, leftovers from burning coal for electricity, contains toxic metals such as arsenic, chromium and selenium, which is why environmental groups prefer that EPA regulate ash as hazardous waste. Groups say those materials can leach from coal-ash sites into groundwater. They often point to an incident in 2008 near Kingston, Tenn., in which 1 billion gallons of ash slurry from a Tennessee Valley Authority coal-ash site flooded the nearby area.

The Oakland, Calif., environmental law firm Earthjustice puts Texas among 12 states with the least amount of regulation.

Environmental groups and Democrats also say stricter regulations actually can create engineering and construction jobs for building new coal-ash sites.

House Energy and Commerce Ranking Member Henry Waxman, D-Calif., has said the Republicans’ bill would replace EPA’s proposed rule “with an ineffective program that won’t ensure the safe disposal of coal ash.”

“We’re coming up on the three-year anniversary of the TVA coal ash disaster and it is disheartening that we still have no measures in place to protect the public against toxic ash,” Lisa Evans, senior administrative counsel for Earthjustice, said in a statement.

The utility, Wisconsin Energy Corp., said today the spill won’t cause harm public health.

“Coal ash is not a hazardous material. It is unlikely there will be any health impacts at all from this event,” the company said in a statement. “The company and other officials will conduct an investigation to determine the cause of the bluff failure.”

In the Senate, five Democrats and five Republicans recently introduced a bill that mirrors McKinley’s. It faces an uphill battle because Democrats hold a majority in the chamber.

Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., a Senate bill co-sponsor, indicated he feels the bill stands a chance in the Senate. “I think you can see by the co-sponsors that there’s strong bipartisan support for this legislation,” Conrad said.

Senate Environment and Public Works Chairwoman Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., has said she will use “every tool at my disposal” to stop efforts to block EPA rules.

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

“If this Senate legislation sees the light of day it must be stopped in its tracks by the White House,” Evans said. This event must be a wake-up call for our government to take action now.”