Modern technology allows us to capture more pollution than ever before from the smokestacks of coal-fired power plants, leaving our air cleaner than in the past. But that leaves us grappling with large amounts of coal combustion waste, which contains toxic substances including arsenic, lead and mercury. Each year in the United States alone, coal burning produces 129 million tons of CCW, and that amount is expected to exceed 170 million tons by 2015.

Even though CCW represents one of the nation's biggest streams of industrial waste, it's not currently regulated by the federal government as hazardous waste -- and the patchwork of state regulations has not proven adequate to protect communities from contamination. While some CCW is used to make products like wallboard, much of it ends up being dumped in unlined landfills, surface impoundments or abandoned mines. As a result of all that loosely regulated dumping, CCW has contaminated drinking water supplies in at least eight states, including Georgia; resulted in fish consumption advisories in Texas and North Carolina; and has been associated with physical abnormalities in more than 20 species of amphibians and reptiles in South Carolina wetlands.

CCW landed in the spotlight recently in Virginia, where monitoring wells near the CCW landfill for Dominion's Deep Creek power plant have detected high levels of arsenic in the groundwater. Fly ash from that same plant was also used to build a golf course in Chesapeake, Va., where water tests at 75 nearby properties have since turned up elevated levels of boron, a marker for CCW contamination. And in Virginia's Giles County, residents are protesting an unlined 15-acre CCW fill along the New River that will be used to create a construction site.

But some regulators are finally considering mandating tougher oversight of CCW. Last Thursday, a panel of the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality began considering whether the state should more strictly regulate CCW. That came two days after another hearing held in Washington by the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources on the federal government's role in regulating CCW. Among those offering Congressional testimony was Lisa Evans [pdf], an attorney with the nonprofit law firm Earthjustice:

The question before this subcommittee, how the federal government should address the risks of coal combustion waste, has a straightforward answer. Simply stated, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) must do what it committed to do in its final Regulatory Determination on Wastes from the Combustion of Fossil Fuels, published 8 years ago. In that determination, mandated by Congress in 1980, EPA concluded that federal standards for the disposal of coal combustion waste under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) and/or the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA) are required to protect health and the environment. EPA's commitment to set minimum federal disposal standards extended to coal ash disposed in landfills, lagoons and mines. Yet eight years later, and 25 years after Congress required this determination, EPA's commitment remains an entirely empty promise.

Advocates for tougher regulation of CCW can expect resistance from coal-burning utilities, though. That was clear from the Congressional testimony of David Goss, executive director of the American Coal Ash Association, which counts among its members the nation's largest utility companies. Goss told Congress in no uncertain terms that his organization believes current regulations are adequately protective of the environment and public health and does not "see a need for this regulatory balance to be legislatively adjusted at this time."