Congressional coal ash defenders ignore damages back home
With the Environmental Protection Agency expected to release its proposed regulations for power plant coal ash any day now, there is an intense behind-the-scenes lobbying effort by industry interests hoping to keep the waste from being declared hazardous and thus subject to the strictest federal oversight.
President Obama's regulatory czar, Cass Sunstein of the White House Office of Management and Budget, has reportedly held some 20 meetings with industry groups since October to discuss the potential impact of proposed EPA rules to treat coal ash as hazardous waste. A byproduct of burning coal for electricity, coal ash contains toxins including heavy metals that have a track record of making their way from the ash into groundwater and surface water supplies -- which is why environmental advocates have long called for regulating it like other hazardous waste.
But it isn't only industry insiders who are pressing for the regulatory status quo when it comes to coal ash: They're getting help from U.S. lawmakers -- in some cases lawmakers from states that have suffered documented environmental damage from loosely regulated ash dumping.
Late last month, 27 Senators from both major political parties sent a letter [pdf] to the President opposing re-classification of coal ash as hazardous waste. That followed a bipartisan letter [pdf] sent to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson last June by 25 Senators and another letter [pdf] sent to Jackson that same month by 74 members of the House of Representatives raising the same concerns: that a hazardous designation would put an end to the recycling of coal ash, interfere with its so-called "beneficial uses" like structural and mine fill, and lead to "unnecessarily high costs" for utilities and consumers. All three of the letters point to a 2000 determination by the Clinton EPA that coal ash should not be managed as hazardous.
The 2000 EPA determination was also cited by dozens of other letters opposing the hazardous designation for coal ash that have been sent to the Obama administration by numerous state agencies -- from the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality to the Florida Department of Transportation to the North Carolina Public Utility Commission. In its own March 2009 letter [pdf] to the EPA, the American Coal Ash Association -- the lobbying group for coal ash producers and users -- also pointed to the 2000 determination in making its arguments against classifying coal ash as hazardous waste.
However, the ACAA and its government allies fail to mention that the EPA has released additional information since 2000 that calls into question the effectiveness of the current regulatory system.
On July 9, 2007, EPA's Office of Solid Waste published a report titled "Coal Combustion Damage Case Assessments" [pdf] documenting 24 cases of proven environmental damage and 43 cases of potential damage caused by current coal ash disposal practices nationwide. As it turns out, many of those damage cases are in the home states of Congress members opposing strict coal ash regulations.
Facing South compiled the following list of the signers of the House and Senate letters from states with EPA-documented coal ash damage cases. It is arranged alphabetically by state, followed by the number of the state's damage cases and the Senators and/or Representatives who signed letters opposed to classifying coal ash as hazardous waste:
* ALABAMA - 2 damage cases - Rep. Parker Griffith-R.
* GEORGIA - 1 damage case - Sens. Saxby Chambliss-R, Johnny Isakson-R.
* ILLINOIS - 8 damage cases - Rep. John Shimkus-R.
* INDIANA - 7 damage cases - Sen. Evan Bayh-D; Reps. Steve Buyer-R, Andre Carson-D, Brad Ellsworth-D, Baron Hill-D, Mark Souder-R, Peter Visclosky-D.
* KENTUCKY - 1 damage case - Sen. Jim Bunning-R; Reps. Harold Rogers-R, Ed Whitfield-R.
* MARYLAND - 1 damage case - Sen. Barbara Mikulski-D; Rep. Roscoe Bartlett-R.
* MINNESOTA - 1 damage case - Sen. Amy Klobuchar-D; Reps. Michele Bachmann-R, John Kline-R, Erik Paulsen-R.
* MONTANA - 1 damage case - Sen. Jon Tester-D; Rep. Denny Rehberg-R.
* NORTH CAROLINA - 3 damage cases - Sen. Richard Burr-R; Reps. Howard Coble-R, Walter Jones-R, Patrick McHenry-R, Sue Myrick-R.
* NORTH DAKOTA - 3 damage cases - Sens. Kent Conrad-D, Byron Dorgan-D; Rep. Earl Pomeroy-D.
* OHIO - 3 damage cases - Sen. George Voinovich-R; Reps. Steve Austria-R, Steve Driehaus-D, Jim Jordan-R, Robert Latta-R, Steven LaTourette-R, Tim Ryan-D, Jean Schmidt-R, Zachary T. Space-D, Charles A. Wilson-D.
* PENNSYLVANIA - 1 damage case - Reps. Jason Altmire-D, Christopher Carney-D, Charles Dent-R, Michael Doyle-D, Jim Gerlach-R, Tim Holden-D, Tim Murphy-R, John Murtha-D, Joseph Pitts-R, Bill Shuster-R, Glenn Thompson-R.
* SOUTH CAROLINA - 2 damage cases - Sen. Lindsey Graham-R; Reps. J. Gresham Barrett-R, Henry Brown-R, Joe Wilson-R.
* TENNESSEE - 2 damage cases - Sens. Lamar Alexander-R, Bob Corker-R.
* TEXAS - 3 damage cases - Sen. John Cornyn-R; Reps. Henry Cuellar-D, Louie Gohmert-R, Gene Green-D, Ralph Hall-R, Mac Thornberry-R.
* VIRGINIA - 2 damage cases - Sens. Mark Warner-D, Jim Webb-D; Reps. Rick Boucher-D, Bob Goodlatte-R.
* WISCONSIN - 11 damage cases - Reps. Tammy Baldwin-D, Ron Kind-D, Thomas Petri-R, James Sensenbrenner-R.
* WYOMING - 1 damage case - Sens. John Barrasso-R, Michael Enzi-R; Rep. Cynthia Lummis-R.
That puts at 53 the total number of EPA-documented coal ash damage cases in states represented by members of Congress who signed letters opposing stricter coal-ash regulations. That there have been so many damage cases under the current regulatory system raises questions about the letters' claims that the state regulatory agencies which now oversee coal ash are doing an effective job.
Among the proven coal-ash damage cases documented in EPA's 2007 assessment:
* In 2002, a sinkhole developed in the coal ash pond at Southern Company-owned Georgia Power's Plant Bowen near Cartersville, Ga. Eventually spreading four acres wide and 30 feet deep, the sinkhole led to the spill of an estimated 2.25 million gallons of a coal ash and water mixture into the nearby Euharlee Creek.
* Runoff from a fly ash pond at Duke Energy's Belews Creek Steam Station in North Carolina contaminated nearby Belews Lake, which experts have called "one of the most extensive and prolonged cases of selenium poisoning of freshwater fish in the United States."
* At South Carolina Electric & Gas Canadys Plant along the Edisto River south of St. George, S.C., arsenic consistently has been found in monitoring wells at levels about drinking water standards, while nickel has also been detected on occasion above state standards. Both of those metals are known to cause cancer in humans.
* Residential wells near a coal ash disposal site for Virginia Power's Yorktown plant, now owned by Dominion, were found to be contaminated with selenium and vanadium, with selenium levels exceeding drinking water standards. Further investigation found heavy metal contamination in nearby Chisman Creek and its tributaries, with elevated levels of known carcinogens including arsenic, beryllium and chromium.
* Selenium poisoning of fish caused by runoff from coal ash ponds was also documented at reservoirs near Southwestern Power's Pirkey plant and its Welsh plant in Texas, as well as near Texas Utilities' Martin Lake plant.
Meanwhile, EPA's 2007 damage assessment does not take into account more recent cases of documented damages from coal ash. Last year, for example, scientists released an analysis documenting groundwater contamination from coal ash ponds at 13 coal-fired power plants across North Carolina. The assessment also does not account for the extensive damages related to the massive coal ash spill from the Tennessee Valley Authority's Kingston plant in December 2008 -- the disaster that spurred EPA to reconsider coal ash regulation.
And contamination from coal ash is not only a concern at power plants, as there is growing evidence that the use of coal ash as structural fill has also damaged the environment.
In North Carolina, for example, there have been at least two documented cases of groundwater contamination from structural fills using coal ash. In Pennsylvania, environmental advocates have documented numerous instances of contamination from the dumping of coal ash in abandoned mines. And in Virginia, lawsuits filed recently against Dominion Virginia Power, Combustion Products Management and others over a golf course built atop a coal ash fill allege that toxic contaminants from the ash have begun to leach into groundwater supplies used as drinking water for nearby Chesapeake neighborhoods.
But nowhere do the Congressional letters urging against stronger coal ash regulation take these damages into account. Apparently their signers think the current system is working just fine, despite the evidence to the contrary.
Sue is the editorial director of Facing South and the Institute for Southern Studies.