Aerial view of Kingston coal ash spill
(Aerial image of Kingston coal ash spill from SkyTruth.)

Industry lobbies White House hard on coal ash regulation

Environmental advocates were disappointed last month when Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson announced that her agency would miss the promised end-of-the-year deadline to release a proposed regulation of coal ash.

She blamed the delay on "the complexity of the analysis" -- but new details are emerging about the intense lobbying campaign the utility industry is engaged in to protect its financial interests.

The Wall Street Journal reported this past weekend on what it called a "flurry of industry meetings" held within the White House in an effort to fight back against regulations that would create logistical problems and potentially limit so-called "beneficial" uses of coal ash:

The office of President Barack Obama's regulatory czar, Cass Sunstein, has held nearly 20 meetings with industry groups since October to discuss the potential impact of proposed EPA rules to treat coal ash and other coal byproducts as hazardous waste, according to White House records. Mr. Sunstein directs the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs within the White House Office of Management and Budget.

Watchdog groups say it is unusual for the OMB to insert itself so prominently, and so early, into the process. In this case, the EPA has yet to publish its proposed new regulations for coal ash, a step that would then open the door to public comment and hearings.

Utility executives are concerned that new rules designating coal ash as hazardous waste could add billions of dollars in new costs, as companies would be required to find safer ways to store the material than dangerous surface impoundments like the one that collapsed at the Tennessee Valley Authority's Kingston coal plant in eastern Tennessee a little over a year ago -- a disaster that put coal ash regulation on the national agenda.

Besides presenting a physical hazard to communities because of the way it's stored, coal ash contains toxic metals including arsenic as well as radioactive elements and cancer-causing combustion byproducts that can leach out of impoundments and landfills and contaminate water supplies. A 2007 EPA report documented dozens of places nationwide where environmental damage from coal ash has been proven and identified scores of other potential damage cases.

It's not only the way that utilities store coal ash that's at stake in the rule-making. Should the new regulation broadly define coal ash as hazardous waste, it could put a crimp in utilities' efforts to promote so-called "beneficial uses" of the material in consumer products like wallboard, as structural fill for construction projects and as a soil amendment for farm crops -- all uses that are currently permitted and even encouraged under federal law.

Of the 131 million tons of coal combustion waste generated by U.S. utilities in 2007, about 40% went toward so-called "beneficial uses" and the rest into surface impoundments and landfills, according to a recent report by the Government Accountability Office.

There is currently no federal standard regulating storage and use of coal ash. Depending on how far-reaching the proposed rule is, a spokesperson for the industry group Electric Power Research Institute told the Wall Street Journal, as many as 250 to 350 coal units could be shut down. However, environmentalists say such dramatic claims are scare tactics aimed at discouraging the Obama administration from taking needed steps to protect the public.

(Aerial image of Kingston coal ash spill from SkyTruth.)
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re: Industry lobbies White House hard on coal ash regulation

Using waste as resource
I would like to comment the use of coal ash in other products. Coal fired power plants will be around for many years, and they will produce large amounts of ash. It is of utterly importance to use as much as possible of these waste as a resource. And already its uses gives environmental benefits.
Fly ash used in cement reduces the amount of clinker in cement. This again gives big reductions in emissions of CO2. It also makes a better concrete. For every ton of fly ash that substitute clinker, the amount of CO2 is reduced by a ton. This is a huge saving!
The environmental movement should rather put focus on encouraging industry to use the ash-products. That is a sustainable way to go.

re: Industry lobbies White House hard on coal ash regulation

Why should coal be around for many years? Apparently, you work either directly for or indirectly for the coal industry and have not suffered the consequences of coal waste that you speak so HIGHLY of.

I know many people who are currently suffering from the spill in Kingston as we speak. You say that this crap makes cement stronger. I say you are full of it. They used this very stuff in their own dike that broke and dumped billions of gallons of toxic ash all over the place. Be sure to tell everyone here about all the toxic heavy metals that are in coal ash. I noticed that you happened to tippy toe right around that. Stuff like arsenic, mercury, cadmium, berillium,lead and many more substances every one wants to live around. Be sure to tell them that it just came out that the EPA was hiding under the Bush regime that studys prove that people living close to these coal burning plants were 100 times likely to get cancer than those who do not. Lets not forget that either.

re: Industry lobbies White House hard on coal ash regulation

any claim that coal ash makes concrete better is only propaganda created by and funded by entities that have an interest in getting rid of coal ash. It does not take a rocket scientist to understand that coal ash is an inferior building product at best. The larger concern is how spreading all this pollution is going to stopped before all the health risks involved happen. How about a warning label on any product that contains coal ash.

re: Industry lobbies White House hard on coal ash regulation

I managed much of the risk assessment and other work at EPA before retiring in 2005. Surface impoundments should be phased out on an accelerated schedule, and converted to covered/lined in-ground fills, and all wastes must be managed dry. Beneficial use is to be encouraged by EPA as now, especially use in reclaiming abandoned mines as in Europe (and here). Future wastes should be contingently hazardous, with continuous characterization as generated and heavy monitoring. This is not expensive. Fast. Enough. 25 years.