Three Years After Tennessee Disaster, U.S. Effort to Prevent the Next Coal Ash Catastrophe Faces Uncertain Future

by Ben Somberg

December 22, 2011

Three years ago today, an earthen wall holding back a giant coal ash impoundment failed in Kingston, Tennessee, sending more than a billion gallons of coal ash slurry over nearby land and into the Emory River. The ash had chemicals including arsenic, lead, and mercury. Clean up costs could be as much as $1.2 billion.

Public policy progress often comes in the wake of disasters. But three years after Kingston, it very much remains to be seen whether that disaster will at least lead to the needed regulations to stop the next one. Can EPA get the train back on the track? I hope so.

EPA had pledged that it would publish a proposed rule on coal ash by the end of 2009. But because OMB all but hijacked the process, the proposed rule didn't come until May 2010, and it was actually multiple proposals, not one, adding unnecessary complexity to EPA’s task of producing a draft final rule.

Okay, I lifted those first three paragraphs from my post on the Kingston anniversary last year, changing the “two years” to three. The sad truth is, not all that much has changed on the coal ash front in the last year.

Perhaps the biggest headlines on the issue came in October, when 267 members of the U.S. House voted for a bill that would stop the needed strong regulation. The Senate companion bill has at least three Democratic supporters, but the White House has stated its opposition, though not including the standard veto threat language.

The House bill’s advocates touted their vote as a victory against an Administration that was regulating out of control. But the reality is these Representatives were late to their game: EPA’s “strong” regulation had already been stymied by President Obama’s own OMB (see my post last year for a rundown on the history). Without overly belittling the significance of the House vote, let’s not forget our history here.

Certainly a permanent prohibition on strong coal ash regulation would not be good. The bigger picture, though, is that it’s unclear if or when such a regulation is going to happen. Not until after the 2012 election, the Administration has effectively said. And by publicly embracing the flawed notion that strong coal ash regulation might have hundreds of billions of dollars of negative effects on the reuse industry through the “stigma effect,” the Administration made its future job harder if it gets another four years and wants to one day get this one right.

The public may or may not yet win this one, but victory is not likely near.

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