Today, the EPA announced national standards governing coal waste from coal-fired power plants, also known as coal ash. The rule does not treat coal ash as a hazardous material, but as household garbage.
CPR President and University of Maryland law professor Rena Steinzor reacted to the classification:
It’s bitterly disappointing that the electric utility industry, which earns profits hand over fist, has succeeded in bamboozling the White House to gut this rule. Originally designed by EPA to prevent fatalities, injuries, and grave long-term damage to the public’s health, the rule was caught in the cross hairs of naysaying economists on the President’s staff, who invented the misguided and subversive notion that if coal ash dumps were cleaned up, coal ash could not be recycled. In fact, a strong rule that makes it more expensive to dispose of coal ash could only result in more of it being recycled, especially because EPA never proposed to place any restrictions on recycling.
Coal-fired power plants produce an astounding 100 million tons of coal ash annually. For decades, utilities dumped this enormous quantity of waste into pits in the ground, where rain turned the ash into inky sludge. Unwilling to face the growing risk posed by the dumps, the companies kept shoring up the fragile walls of such dumps with the functional equivalent of chewing gum and spit. As smokestack scrubbers were installed to keep toxic metals like mercury and arsenic out of the air, these pollutants did not disappear, but instead fell down the stack into the ash, converting it into even more dangerous waste. Two recent spills–from a Duke Energy site in North Carolina and from a Tennessee Valley Authority site in Kingston, Tennessee–should have been the only wake-up call we needed to compel the companies to rebuild these sites before people are killed by spills and drinking water is ruined by leaks out of the bottom of the dumps.
Instead, the White House shut down a strong EPA rule and insisted on the pitifully weak alternative issued today, which treats coal ash as if it was household garbage and leaves it up to the tender mercies of state regulators to chase around after utility executives who have only to call their political bosses to shut down any further controls.
When–not if–the next spill happens, the White House will share the blame. We can only pray that no one is caught in the path of a river of sludge.