EPA puts off long-promised coal ash protections

Communities imperiled by poorly managed coal ash won't be getting help from the federal government any time soon.

The Obama administration announced last week that it would not issue long-awaited federal regulations this year after all. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson shared the news in a March 3 hearing of a House Appropriations subcommittee.

Jackson blamed the delay on the large number of public comments -- over 450,000 -- that the agency received on the issue.

"It will take quite a bit of time to sort through," Jackson said, according to a report by the Bureau of National Affairs.

Last May, EPA proposed two options for regulating coal ash, the toxic waste left over after coal is burned to generate electricity. One option would oversee coal ash as a special waste under Subtitle C of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, which applies to hazardous waste. The other would treat it as a nonhazardous waste under RCRA Subtitle D, offering federal guidelines for its handling but leaving oversight to the states.

Jackson told the subcommittee that the comments did not appear to favor one option over the other.

Environmental advocates blasted the decision to delay.

"Because 400,000 people cared enough to demand swift and effective action, EPA now has a reason to stall?" said Lisa Evans, an attorney with the environmental law firm Earthjustice. "It's patently wrong and absolutely backwards."

The impetus for federal regulations came from the catastrophic December 2008 collapse of a coal ash impoundment at the Tennessee Valley Authority's Kingston plant in eastern Tennessee. The disaster spilled more than a billion gallons of coal ash laden with heavy metals, radioactive elements and other pollutants on a nearby community and into the Emory and Clinch rivers.

To date, the federal government and environmental advocacy groups have documented 137 cases of environmental damages caused by coal ash in 34 states, with many of those involving pollution of water supplies.

A recent EPA risk assessment [pdf] found that people who live near coal ash impoundments and drink from wells have as much as a 1 in 50 chance from getting cancer due to contamination with arsenic, one of the most common and dangerous pollutants in coal ash. The assessment also found an increased risk of damage to the liver, lungs, kidneys and other organs.

A study by environmental advocacy groups found that contamination from improper coal ash waste disposal is concentrated in communities with family poverty rates above the national median.

The utility industry and companies that recycle coal ash into products have fought the effort to designate coal ash as hazardous waste. They argue that such a move would increase energy costs and discourage recycling.