GOP to seek changes to EPA coal ash rule

House Republicans are planning a bill aimed at providing more certainty to utilities by amending the Environmental Protection Agency’s coal ash disposal rule.

At a Thursday House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing, members of both parties were generally supportive of the rule, which set the first federal standards for coal ash storage and disposal at power plants and in landfills.

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While the GOP is happy that the EPA did not classify coal ash as hazardous waste — which would have mandated far more stringent standards — members said new legislation would create a better and more certain regulatory environment for electric utilities, companies that reuse coal ash and others.

“While we acknowledge the amount of time and effort EPA put into drafting the final rule, because of the significant limitations of the rule we still believe that a legislative solution that sets out minimum federal requirements and allows the states to develop enforceable permit programs to implement the standards, is the best approach to dealing with the regulation of coal ash,” said Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.), who chairs the Environment subpanel.

Coal ash is usually stored in ponds near power plants or in dry landfills. It contains many of the toxic substances in coal, like chromium, arsenic, mercury and lead.

Republicans’ main problem with the EPA’s December rule is that it left open the door to later reclassifying coal ash as hazardous.

In addition, Republicans said the rule could mandate that utilities comply with two separate regulatory regimes from the federal government and a state. It also exposes utilities to extensive litigation from citizens if they do not comply.

“The current regulatory path contains risks for all sides, and could lead to even greater uncertainty and expense,” said Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), the full committee’s chairman.

He wants the committee to take a bill it passed previously, sponsored by Rep. David McKinley (R-W.Va.), and update it to respond to new concerns and the EPA’s rule.

It would allow the agency to set federal minimum standards that states would have to enforce.

“Mr. McKinley’s bill in the last Congress went a long way toward solving the challenges with coal ash management,” Upton said. “The legislation recognized that states like Michigan were already running successful disposal programs, and it allowed states to continue to use their localized regulatory expertise.”

Mathy Stanislaus, who oversees the EPA’s solid waste programs, defended the rule, saying it provides a great deal of certainty for all parties.

“We believe this is a tremendous milestone to protect communities and the environment in which we live and work, and EPA’s committed to working with our state partners, local communities and utilities on the implementation,” he told lawmakers.

“The rule has been designed to provide electric utilities and independent operators who generate coal ash with a practical approach for safe coal ash disposal,” he said.

Democrats agreed with Stanislaus and pushed against Republicans’ demand for new legislation.

Rep. Paul Tonko (D-N.Y.), the subcommittee’s ranking member, said discussing changes now would be “premature.”

“I would observe that changes in regulation or in law take a long time,” he said. “And, hitting the restart button now will only lead to continued uncertainty and risk. We have had far too much of those already.”

Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.), top Democrat on the full committee, had similar praise for the rule.

“As a whole, the rule is an important step forward,” he said. “The rule will offer important protections for human health and the environment, including many protections that were not a part of past legislative proposals.”