EPA coal ash rule comment period closes this week

If you want to weigh in on the Environmental Protection Agency's proposals for regulating coal ash, you have until this Friday, Nov. 19.

The EPA is currently weighing two approaches for regulating the toxic stuff left over after burning coal for electricity: as a special hazardous waste with strict federal monitoring, or as an ordinary solid waste with states taking the lead oversight role. The agency is expected to announce a decision some time next month, which marks the two-year anniversary of the disastrous collapse of a coal ash holding pond at a power plant in East Tennessee.

Environmental and public health watchdogs have long called for federal rules treating coal ash as a hazardous waste, noting that the current regulatory approach giving states oversight has led to widespread environmental damages including polluted drinking water supplies. To date, regulators and independent watchdogs have documented 137 coal ash damage cases in 34 states.

However, the electric utility industry has been lobbying hard against tough regulations, which it claims would cost too much. And the industry carries considerable clout in Washington, having invested more than $16 million in the current election cycle alone, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Coal ash contains health-damaging substances including arsenic, lead, thallium and other chemical elements and compounds that can leach into water supplies. A recent EPA risk assessment [pdf] found that people who live near coal ash holding ponds and drink from wells have as much as a 1 in 50 chance of getting cancer due to arsenic contamination.

There has been some speculation that the mid-term elections, which saw Republicans win the House and narrow the Senate's Democratic majority, may have hurt chances that the Obama administration will embrace the more protective hazardous designation for coal ash. As EnergyBiz.com opined earlier this month:

While the Obama administration would probably prefer the stricter guidelines, it is unlikely to expend the necessary political capital. With the Republicans now in charge of the House of Representatives, the president's team will extend an olive branch and instead choose to make more incremental changes -- to toughen disposal standards and to let the states maintain their leadership role.

That possibility makes it more important than ever for ordinary citizens whose health and property values are endangered by inadequately regulated coal ash to weigh in with the EPA and counterbalance the political might of industry interests.

To read a copy of the proposed rule, click here. To submit comments online, click here or here.