House committee: Let states implement federal coal ash rules - WBOY.com: Clarksburg, Morgantown: News, Sports, Weather

House committee: Let states implement federal coal ash rules

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A Congressional committee on the environment and economy says states should be given the authority to regulate "one of the largest waste streams generated in the United States" if the state conforms to federal minimum standards.

In a hearing of the U.S. House of Representative's  Subcommittee on Environment and Economy, under the Committee on Energy and Commerce,  witnesses testified regarding coal ash recycling and storage. Leaders of the committee touted legislation designed to allow states to implement standards regarding the handling of coal combustion residuals, a material that can be recycled into building materials.

"The long and short of it is – Congress is perfectly capable of establishing a standard of protection for coal ash," said Environment and the Economy Subcommittee Chairman Rep. John Shimkus, R-Ill. "The states are perfectly capable – and in the best position – to implement robust permit programs for coal ash."

Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich., also spoke in favor of the premise of the draft of the Coal Ash Recycling and Oversight Act of 2013.

"We began the last Congress by asking: Should we allow EPA to write rules that would bind every state regardless of geography, hydrology, history, and economics, or should we allow the states to build and operate their own permitting systems? The answer that this committee reported, and which the House passed, both with bipartisan support, was a compromise," Upton said. "It gave the choice to the states to apply minimum federal standards specified in the legislation itself, or a state could vacate the field and let EPA step in and run that state's program directly."

Rep. David McKinley, R-W.Va., introduced a bill that passed the House, but not the Senate, last year that would produce similar results. The new draft being considered today includes more specific requirements such as a stipulation that would close an impoundment that failed to meet groundwater protection requirements within a certain timeframe.

States currently regulate coal combustion residuals with no federal minimum standards. In 2010, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed federal standard following the failure of a massive impoundment at the Tennessee Valley Authority's plant in Kingston, Tennessee.

One of the EPA's proposal was to regulate the coal ash as hazardous waste under Subtitle C of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. Status as a Subtitle C substance would mean more costs and closer scrutiny of those dealing with coal ash.

Another proposal was to regulate coal as a non-hazardous material that would only be enforced by lawsuits brought on by private citizens.

The drafted legislation before the subcommittee would implement a number of requirements including that structures be built with a base located at least two feet above the upper limit of the water table and a requirement that structures address wind dispersal of dust. It also contains criteria for groundwater monitoring, special protections for floodplains, wetlands, fault areas and seismic impact zones; air quality; financial assurance; surface water; record keeping; and run-on and run-off control systems for landfills.

According to testimony from Mathy Stanislaus, assistant administrator of the Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response for the EPA, approximately 136 million tons of coal combustion wastes were generated in 2008. About 37 percent of that was beneficially used and 21 percent went into surface impoundments.

"The documented damages associated with the mismanagement of CCRs support the need for action to address those risks," Stanislaus said. "We support the development, implementation, and enforcement of appropriate standards for facilities managing coal ash, while encouraging the beneficial use of this economically important material."

Stanislaus said the EPA does have concerns about the legislation "does not clearly address timelines for the development and implementation of state programs, criteria for EPA to use to determine when a state program is deficient, criteria for CCR unit structural integrity, deadlines for closure of unlined or leaking impoundments/units, including inactive or abandoned impoundments/units, and the universe of CCR disposal units subject to a permit program including impoundments, landfills, waste piles, pits and quarries, and other disposal scenarios."

The material contains a number of harmful heavy metals that can do harm to both human and environmental health. In 2010, when EPA proposed federal coal wastes standards, groundwater or surface water contamination had been documented in 27 cases. Another 40 cases of potential damage was documented by the EPA.  

Jack Spadaro, former director of the National Mine Health and Safety Academy, said he knows firsthand the destruction that can be caused by coal ash impoundment failure. He was a part of the commission to investigate the destruction of numerous communities of Buffalo Creek destroyed by a dam failure.

In that incident, 125 people were killed and 1,500 homes were destroyed.

Spadaro was skeptical of the legislation has it is written.

"I am certain that the proposed legislation in its present form, without specific requirements for review of design, stringent geotechnical and hydrological engineering requirements, and vigorous enforcement by a federal regulatory agency will result in a catastrophic failure of a coal ash dam containment structure that will result in extensive loss of life and severe environmental damage that will be irreversible," Spadaro said. "There are thousands of such structures in the United States at this time and the failure of one or more of these dams is assured unless strict engineering standards are imposed."

Spadaro said the EPA identified more than 100 coal ash dams in poor condition. He said though the EPA requested owners to remedy the deficiencies at those dams, there is no law required to do so.

Lisa Evans, senior administrative counsel for Earthjustice, said the bill proposed does not go far enough to protect the public.

"… the Coal Ash Recycling and Oversight Act of 2013 cannot and will not adequately protect American communities from the toxic pollution from coal ash," Evans said. "Its ‘unique' approach fails to guarantee the safety and security of communities located near high hazard dams and fails to ensure the protection of our nation's drinking water, rivers and streams. After decades of dangerous disposal of billions of tons of coal ash, it is extremely disappointing that a bill without deadlines would receive serious consideration by this Congress."

Some have hope for re-use of coal ash. In some forms, coal ash can be encapsulated in a way that encapsulates the dangerous elements in materials that can be used for beneficial purposes.

"EPA believes that the great bulk of beneficial uses, particularly in an encapsulated form, as in concrete and wallboard do not raise concerns and offer important environmental benefits," Stanislaus said. "However, some questions have been raised about the use of CCRs in the environment in unencapsulated form."