Tr-ASH-ing Our Rivers with the Ÿ__Coal Residuals Reuse and Management Act’

Coal Ash spill in Kingston, TN

Coal Ash spill in Kingston, TN
Credit: United Mountain Defense

What material when it spills into local waterways can cause arsenic levels to spike to as much as 300 times the legal limit for drinking water, contains mercury, chromium, and dioxins among other toxic chemicals, and yet is only subject to essentially the same standards for its disposal and management as the stuff you put out for the garbage truck every week?

Today, House members voted on a bill (H.R. 2273) regarding this very substance. If you guessed coal ash, you’d be right. When coal is burned for electricity, the materials that are left over are called coal combustion residuals (CCRs) – more commonly known as coal ash. In many places across the country, when you turn on the light switch or turn on the television, you’re getting your electricity from coal-fired power plants. As a result, in 2008 alone, more than136 million tons of coal ash was generated according to the American Coal Ash Association.

That same year, an estimated 5.4 million cubic yards of fly ash (one form of coal ash) from the Kingston Fossil Fuel Plant spilled from an impoundment into the Emory River in Tennessee. There are more than500 similar impoundments of coal ash across the country, maybe near a river you depend on. In 2007, the EPA found that in at least 23 states across the country, improper disposal of coal ash caused surface water and groundwater contamination. The Agency’s 2010 risk assessment of coal ash showed that cancer risk from exposure to coal ash was nine times that of a person who smoked a pack of cigarettes every day.

H.R. 2273, the ‘Coal Residuals Reuse and Management Act,’ introduced by Representative McKinley (R-WV), would allow coal ash to be regulated just like trash that goes into municipal landfills. For instance, if this bill became law, new structures or expansions of structures to store coal ash would only have to meet standards for arsenic and other pollutants that are five times less stringent than the current standards required by the Safe Drinking Water Act. This legislation would allow states to avoid meeting even these outdated requirements by claiming that they are not ‘needed’ in their state and grants the EPA no real enforcement ability to dispute their claim.

This bill puts polluters before people by requiring outdated standards for the safe management of coal ash and creating loopholes large enough to drive a garbage truck through to allow states to avoid meeting even those standards. It will allow states to keep contaminated sites operating and to build new coal ash facilities under less protective standards, while doing nothing to protect people from the hazards of coal ash.

What happened in Kingston back in 2008 was a tragedy.  But what’s even worse is not learning from it.  It’s inevitable that if this bill becomes law, another river, and the people who depend on it, will suffer a similar fate.