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New rules for regulating coal ash?

Posted by Barbara Gottlieb on May 11, 2010

After months of suspense, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has finally released its proposed new rule for regulating coal ash, the waste material left after coal combustion.  But instead of proposing a clear policy, the EPA has laid out two distinct options.

One would require the states to adhere to strict federal regulations for disposal of coal ash.  Among other things, it would phase out the disposal of coal ash in ponds and other wet disposal methods. 

The second option would allow the states to opt out of federal regulations, placing the burden on citizens to press for protection from coal ash -- after it had been dumped. 

Coal ash commonly contains a host of hazardous constituents, including aluminum, antimony, arsenic, barium, beryllium, boron, cadmium, chromium, copper, lead, manganese, mercury, molybdenum, nickel, selenium, strontium, thallium, vanadium, and/or zinc. 

Leaching toxic substances

When coal ash is exposed to water, these toxic substances can leach out of the coal ash and into surface water, groundwater and drinking supplies, potentially causing cancer, heart damage, respiratory problems, gastrointestinal effects, nervous system problems, birth defects, decreases in IQ, and other serious health effects. 

Despite the danger, disposal of coal ash has not to date been regulated by the federal government.   Instead, a patchwork of state regulations governs coal ash handling.

Among the disposal scenarios currently permitted, some states allow coal ash to be stored as slurry in open waste pits, or used to fill old mining sites and quarries, or spread on snowy roads in winter. 

Hundreds of coal ash storage units dot the United States.  Many of them leach toxic materials into drinking supplies, rivers and streams.  Ash ponds – perhaps better called “lakes” – have been known to burst their retaining walls. 

In late 2008, a billion (that’s a b) gallons of coal ash burst through a dam near a Tennessee Valley Authority power plant in Kingston, Tennessee, flooding 300 acres of a nearby valley and river with toxic sludge.

Time to speak out

When EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson introduced the proposed rule earlier this month, she called it “the beginning of a national dialogue.”  The EPA will receive public comments on the two options, and apparently will lean heavily on the comments it receives in deciding which version of the rule to adopt. 

This places great responsibility on PSR, as a leading voice of the medical and public health community, to speak up. 

Over the coming weeks, we will be calling on our members to submit comments on the health implications of coal ash.  As soon as the dates for the public comments period are announced, I’ll be back to you with detailed informational resources and details on how to speak out for health.


Egan Oconnor said ..

100% agreement with David Leithauser above. Getting a new government requires organization to combine our fractured efforts. Grassroots who have jobs and or kids simply do not have TIME to write/call Congress repeatedly on each of 10,000 outrageous legislative bills and amendments. I get requests to write DAILY on ten worthy issues every DAY. Impossible. And futile, as long as we have the best government money can buy. We need to find a charismatic leader for a few common-sense GENERIC principles that at least 75% of the public yearns for. For instance, we would not have oil drilling in the Gulf or air pollution putting toxic nano-particles into our brains or our fresh water supplies contaminated with excreted medications, or our babies "born pre-polluted" by hundreds of biologically unnatural chemicals --- if the starting premise IN LAW becomes that all pollution is illegal and polluters (not citizens) have the burden of justifying any variance and paying pollution taxes for any variance granted after public hearings. We need to study what makes it possible for many Western European democracies to pass much stricter anti-pollution laws than we do. Perhaps it is having more than just two political parties, having coalition governments? Most favorable of all is the advent of the internet, which finally gives democracy here and worldwide its first real chance to make government serve ALL its citizens equally rather than just special interests and corporations. But that opportunity is useless until 75% of grassroots can unite behind a common vision of what a just community would be, and behind rules of conduct and a system of incentives to attain and sustain that just community. Because we cannot win more than crumbs if we try to play whack-a-mole with the infinite number of outrages that are proposed daily in Congress and state legislatures. We have to make use of John Rawls' famous "Veil of ignorance" in formulating principles that 75% of people would consider fair even if they could magically lose all memory of what their OWN special interest is.

May 23, 2010
brad said ..

Very interesting story in the NY Times about business railroading EPA’s desire to regulate fly ash as hazardous waste ash&st=cse “EPA released the two-headed proposal Tuesday for public comments” “But there was just one rule proposal that EPA sent to the White House’s Office of Management and Budget last October and that would have LABELED COAL ASH AS A HAZARDOUS WASTE” “EPA SAID THEN THAT COMPLIANCE WITH THE HAZARDOUS-WASTE REGULATIONS WOULD BE MORE EXPENSIVE BUT THAT COSTS WOULD BE OUTWEIGHED BY HEALTH AND ENVIRONMENTAL BENEFITS” “EPA wrote then that “MAINTAINING A [NONHAZARDOUS] APPROACH WOULD NOT BE PROTECTIVE OF HUMAN AND THE ENVIRONMENT” “Proponents of the hazardous designation say Jackson was bullied away from the agency’s original proposal by INDUSTRY LOBBYISTS and OMB economists” Industry lobbyists like Calstar Products – lobbying to sell toxic fly ash bricks made from a hazardous waste.

May 19, 2010
Mathias van Thiel said ..

Please make sure that the toxic ingredients of coal ash do not leach into the environment

May 18, 2010
Karen A. Vilandry said ..

The aforementioned answers the question of how coal ash is to be treated. With the amounts of heavy metals involved which cause serious illness, coal ash MUST be regarded and regulated as hazardous waste.

May 18, 2010
David Leithauser said ..

After the Gulf oil spill, how many times are we going to trust big business when they tell us they can safely contain pollution? Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me several hundred times, we will need a new government. We need the toughest rules possible for handling toxic waste, and we need them NOW!

May 18, 2010

Comments closed.