How About Coal Ash For School Lunches?

Dave Johnson

House Republicans just passed a bill to strip the Environmental Protection Agency of authority to regulate coal ash. Maybe they plan to “save money” by putting it in school lunches?

In 2008, a levee broke on a coal ash impoundment in Tennessee, spilling more than 5 million cubic yards of coal ash into local waterways. So the EPA proposed a rule to treat stored coal ash as hazardous material.

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This week five environmental groups – Waterkeeper Alliance, the Environmental Integrity Project, Sierra Club, Clean Water Action and EarthJustice – released a report on coal ash pollution. The report, Closing the Floodgates: How the coal industry is poisoning our waters and how we can stop it, begins,

Coal-fired power plants are the largest source of toxic water pollution in the United States based on toxicity, dumping billions of pounds of pollution into America’s rivers, lakes, and streams each year. The waste from coal plants, also known as coal combustion waste, includes coal ash and sludge from pollution controls called “scrubbers” that are notorious for contaminating ground and surface waters with toxic heavy metals and other pollutants. These pollutants, including lead and mercury, can be dangerous to humans and wreak havoc in our watersheds even in very small amounts. The toxic metals in this waste do not degrade over time and many bio-accumulate, increasing in concentration as they travel up the food chain, ultimately collecting in our bodies, and the bodies of our children.

According to the report,

  • Nearly 70 percent of the coal plants that discharge coal ash and scrubber wastewater are allowed to dump unlimited amounts of arsenic, boron, cadmium, mercury, and selenium into public waters, in violation of the Clean Water Act
  • Only about 63 percent of these coal plants are required to monitor and report discharges of arsenic, boron, cadmium, mercury, and selenium.
  • Only about 17% of the permits for the 71 coal plants discharging into waters impaired for arsenic, boron, cadmium, lead, mercury, or selenium contained a limit for the pollutant responsible for degrading water quality.
  • Nearly half of the plants surveyed are discharging toxic pollution with an expired Clean Water Act permit. Fifty-three power plants are operating

So what did the Republican House do about this? The Hill: House votes to blunt EPA regs on coal ash,

The House on Thursday in a 265-155 vote approved legislation that gives states the authority to regulate coal ash. Republicans said the legislation is needed because of the Environmental Protection Agency’s threat to regulate coal ash — a by-product of burning coal — as hazardous waste by 2014.

[. . .] “What the Republicans … are suggesting is that we remove public health protections in order to allow polluting disposal sites to continue with business as usual,” House Energy & Commerce Committee ranking member Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) said.

“This debate is about whether or not we’re going to allow coal ash disposal sites to contaminate our water supplies and threaten human health,” he added. “If this bill is enacted, coal ash disposal sites will continue to pollute our groundwater, and once contamination is confirmed, well this bill would allow them to continue for another 10 years.”

Just in time for the Republican legislation blocking the EPA from doing something about this the Heritage Foundation weighs in with their usual spin, in Coal Ash Bill Empowers States. (I wonder who paid to have Heritage put that out just before the vote?)

The House will soon consider Representative David McKinley’s (R–WV) Coal Residuals Reuse and Management Act (H.R. 2218), which would block the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from classifying coal combustion residues (also known as coal ash) as a hazardous waste. It would also allow states to create their own regulatory permit programs for coal ash disposal and management.

Here is what coal lobbyists know: coal lobbyists have a great deal of influence in the states that matter here. Coal states won’t adequately regulate this stuff. So stripping the EPA of authority over this means the coal companies won’t have to spend money doing things like keeping this stuff out of the drinking water.

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