The Empire Strikes Back

by Matthew Freeman

Ordinarily, if an organization with the word “recycling” in its name said unkind things about the Center for Progressive Reform, I’d worry. But the other week, we got dinged by a newly launched outfit called “Citizens for Recycling First,” and I’m thinking it’s a badge of honor.

Before proceeding, let’s dwell for a moment on the mental images the group’s name conjures up. I’m thinking about plastic bins with recycling logos on their sides, filled by conscientious Americans with soup cans, beer bottles, and aluminum foil.

Perhaps you pull up a different mental image. But whatever it is, I’m pretty sure it’s not a big hole in the ground with toxic coal ash in it. That little bit of misdirection is probably just what the marketing types of the coal and coal ash industry had in mind when this latest front group went on line. And no doubt when John Ward, past President of the American Coal Council, became its chairman, it wasn’t to build a grassroots movement aimed at getting more Americans to turn over their yogurt containers to see what the recycling number is.

In fact, Citizens for Recycling First is all about pressing for regulations on coal ash that don’t inconvenience Ward’s industry associates. They seem to be making headway lately, as measured by the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs’ willingness to sit for some 28 meetings with opponents of a contemplated, but not yet publicly proposed, EPA regulation governing disposal of the stuff. And if nothing else, they’ve succeeded in delaying action. By executive order, OIRA is allowed to review EPA’s proposal for 120 days – a 90-day review period that OIRA can unilaterally extend one time for 30 days. But day 121 came and went this month, and OIRA was still sitting on EPA’s proposal.

In fact, that’s what occasioned CRF to take a shot at CPR. CPR President Rena Steinzor pointed out in a blog post the day before OIRA missed its deadline that EPA wasn’t obligated to wait for OIRA to act, once the deadline passed. “Outrageous,” cried the unsigned response from CRF. Calling for such a step is like crying, “Damn the babies. Throw out the bathwater.”

Hardly. Despite CRF’s protests to the contrary, coal ash is toxic stuff, filled as it is with arsenic, cadmium, chromium, lead, mercury, selenium, and thallium. It can be recycled safely into cement, shingles and wall board – and building the market for that was part of John Ward’s business for a while. But most of it is dumped into pits, often unlined and uncovered, and thus open to rain, likely to leach, and vulnerable to flooding. The latter is what happened in Kingston, Tennessee in December 2008, resulting in a spill of 1.1 billion gallons of coal ash slurry covering 300 acres of land. It won’t all be cleaned up for another three years or so, and the total cost will be about $1.2 billion.

That’s why EPA is interested in regulating the disposal of coal ash that isn’t recycled. The power plant, coal and coal reuse industries would just as soon go with the sludgy status quo, thanks very much, and they’ve mounted a no-holds barred campaign to stop EPA’s proposed regulation from seeing the light of day. Keep in mind, the proposal EPA sent to OIRA hasn’t yet been published in the Federal Register, where the public could get a look at it. If OIRA doesn’t block it, EPA will publish it in the form of a proposal and solicit comments from the public. That’s the point at which industry and others are supposed to get their chance to weigh in, not now, before the rule has even been published. By working the rule over in its pre-publication state, while it’s in OIRA’s clutches, industry is buying itself extra bites of the apple. It can pressure OIRA now, pre-publication, then it can comment during the comments period, and then it can pressure OIRA some more when EPA submits its draft final rule to OIRA again. (And, then, of course, it can sue, once the rule is final.) That’s a lousy way to make public policy, but OIRA invites it, by being so solicitous of industry.

Apparently the coal ash campaign now also includes its own front group, which is how you can tell some serious money is on the table. So when and if the proposed regulation gets published for public comment, look for a very loud controversy, as various industry interest groups and their allies try to persuade us that none of the toxic metals in coal ash are any worse than what you’d find in your own home. 

Right there in that recycling bin, perhaps.

A couple interesting things about Citizens for Recycling First.

  • Peruse CRF’s website (registered on January 18th of this year), and you’ll find no mention of ordinary citizens coming together to make the case against regulating coal ash. Makes you wonder who the citizens behind Citizens for Recycling First are.

  • CRF protests that the EPA response to the Kingston, Tennessee disaster shouldn’t have been to regulate coal ash. It wasn’t the coal ash that was the problem, CRF seems to argue, it was all the water. After all, Hurricane Katrina was a disaster, too.  Should we designate water as ‘hazardous?’“

 



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