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Anti-Regulatory Sentiment and Coal Ash Spills

July 22, 2015
Blog Post
Anti-Regulatory Sentiment and Coal Ash Spills

In 2014, a devastating coal ash spill in Eden, North Carolina released tens of thousands of tons of ash and an estimated 27 million gallons of polluted water into the Dan River. This was the third largest coal ash spill in nearly 50 years and came less than 6 years after the largest toxic waste spill in history with the 2008 failure of a coal ash impoundment in Kingston, TN.  These recent environmental disasters helped focus public attention on the serious public and environmental health hazards posed by coal ash storage.

Coal ash, a byproduct of coal-fired power plants, is one of the largest waste streams in the country and often contains chemicals such as arsenic, mercury, chromium and lead. While a small amount of this waste can be repurposed, most excess coal ash is currently stored in more than 400 landfills and more than 1,000 wet impoundments near power plants across the country. In North Carolina, we have 37 coal ash ponds at 14 plants across the state, and 12 of these sites have been identified as “high hazard” by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).  

For decades, the storage and disposal of coal ash has been subject to a widely-varied patchwork of state regulations, with no federal standard of safety for these facilities.  However, the Eden spill underscored the need for a federal effort to address the risks of coal ash pollution, and in December 2014, the EPA released a new rule that will allow for common-sense safety regulation of coal ash storage and disposal. The rule reflects a compromise between the EPA and the energy industry, based on sound science, public participation, and three decades of research into the potential consequences of spills. This was government at its best – a well-reasoned solution to a very real problem developed with the cooperation of industry and the public.

So it should come as no surprise that House Republicans, operating under the assumption that any regulation must be bad regulation, introduced a bill this week to dismantle the EPA’s progress. I voted against that legislation – the deceptively-named Improving Coal Combustion Residuals Regulation Act – when it passed the House today because it would unjustifiably eliminate, undermine, or delay some of the well-thought out protections included in this compromise rule.  I don’t believe we should prioritize the energy industry’s bottom line over environmental protection and public health.

Since nearly 70% of coal ash storage facilities are located in communities where a majority of the population earns an income that falls below the national average, and where communities of color are disproportionately represented, I am particularly concerned that the legislation would harm some of our most vulnerable populations. That is why I joined my colleagues from North Carolina, Reps. Butterfield and Adams, and several other colleagues, in introducing an amendment that would have prevented the bill from taking effect if it were found to unfairly discriminate against these communities.  Unfortunately, this amendment failed.

This bill isn’t going anywhere. Even if it passes the Senate, President Obama has threatened to veto it. I’ve said it before, and I will keep saying it until someone listens – let’s put these political messaging bills aside and get to work on making the investments that we need to thrive as a country.