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Big Coal Fights Off Crackdown on Toxic Ash

POSTED:
Coal is loaded onto a truck at a coal mine atop Kayford Mountain in West Virginia.
Coal is loaded onto a truck at a coal mine atop Kayford Mountain in West Virginia.
MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

Yesterday was a good day for Big Coal. 

At a meeting yesterday with activists in Washington an EPA official announced that although the agency is working “very hard” on new rules - already about 30 years overdue -  for toxic coal ash disposal, those rules won't be completed until 2012, or even 2013, according to Lisa Evans of the environmental group Earthjustice. Evans was among a group of activists from 50 states who met with EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson and others on Capital Hill to push for tougher clean air regulations.

No surprise there: Big Coal has lobbied hard against the toxic ash rules — since they threaten to cut into its profits — and the industry knows how to get its way in Washington.

The EPA says the reason for the delay is that it's still digesting public comments from the hearings it held around the country in the aftermath of the coal ash spill in Tennessee in December 2008, when an earthen dam burst and sent a billion gallons of toxic sludge into the Emory River.  It was one of the largest industrial disasters in American history, a flood of waste 100 times larger than Exxon Valdez spill in 1989. 

In the months after the spill, there was a lot of outrage among activists and coal country residents about the fact that there are essentially no federal regulations for the disposal of coal ash in the U.S.  Coal ash -- the residue that is left over after coal is burned -- is nasty stuff, laced with heavy metals like arsenic cadmium, mercury, and selenium, which can be highly toxic.  Each year, coal plants churn out some 140 million tons of ash -- more than 900 pounds for every American. 

Most coal ash is dumped into vast storage sites hidden away in the hills around coal plants, where, if it is not carefully monitored, the toxic metals and other compounds can leach into drinking water supplies, causing a variety of serious health problems.  One recent EPA study estimated that people who live near unlined ash ponds run a risk of cancer from arsenic contamination as high as one in 50 — a level 2,000 times greater than the EPA's threshold for acceptable risk.
 
In the immediate aftermath of the Tennessee spill, EPA administrator Lisa Jackson sounded like she was ready to take action: “The EPA currently has, and has in the past, assessed its regulatory options,” she said. “I think it is time to re-ask those questions.”

Big Coal has long argued that the coal ash is not hazardous to human health, that it can be recycled into wallboard, or stuffed into children's pillows (little joke).  In fact, what the industry is panicked about is the fact that new federal coal ash regulations will increase the cost of getting rid of coal waste (by forcing the power companies to dump it into lined disposal ponds, for example).  And that will, in turn, raise the price of coal-fired power, making it increasingly uncompetitive with cleaner sources of power.  And they are right.  If the true costs of coal were ever calculated into the price of power – the blasted mountains, the polluted air, the ruined aquifers – coal plants would have been shut down years ago for economic reasons alone.

So to stave off tougher coal ash regulations, Big Coal did what it always does: hired hack scientists to perform studies to question the science, claimed that an incremental rise in price of coal fired electricity would bring on economic ruin, and most of all, lobbied hard for delay, delay, delay.

And given yesterday's news, they appear to have won.

Related: Coal's Toxic Sludge: It's deadly, barely regulated, and everywhere. Can Obama crack down on America's second-biggest river of industrial waste? By Jeff Goodell

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