GOP senators wary of EPA coal ash rule

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Republican senators on Wednesday aired concerns with the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) rule on coal ash disposal, saying they might try to revise it.

While they are glad the EPA in December did not classify coal ash as hazardous waste, Republicans on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee said the agency wrote a one-size-fits-all rule that reduces the role of states and opens utilities that operate coal-fired power plants to lawsuits.

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“The EPA rule finalized last December correctly determined that coal ash should continue to be regulated as a nonhazardous waste,” Sen. Jim InhofeJames InhofeDemocrats blast GOP for ‘sabotaging’ House waterways bill GOP pressures Kerry on Russia's use of Iranian airbase Week ahead: Flint aid fight shifts to House MORE (R-Okla.), the chairman of the committee, said at a Wednesday hearing. “It also established minimum one-size-fits all standards for the management and disposal of coal ash in landfills and surface impoundments.”

Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) said that the rule does not account for differences in states. In South Dakota, he says, a requirement for coal ash pits to be lined with composite material would not make sense.

“I’m concerned that this approach does not take into account the various factors involved in coal ash disposal at different facilities across the country,” he added.

Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.) said the rule effectively “puts states on the sidelines, because the citizen suits are the only mechanism that is provided for enforcement of the rule.”

The rule will take effect in October, and is the Obama administration’s response to a number of high-profile coal ash spills in recent years.

Coal ash, the waste product of burning coal, can contain small amounts of arsenic, mercury, chromium and other hazardous substances. It’s usually stored in massive ponds or pits near power plants, which are often located near major waterways used for cooling.

But the waste has been known to seep into groundwater or even break barriers altogether,  which happened recently in Tennessee and North Carolina.

The EPA’s rule sets the first national standards for coal ash disposal. But the agency said it lacks the authority to enforce the rule itself, so it is encouraging states to adopt the standards, or let citizens sue in federal court.

Democrats and environmentalists had hoped for a stronger rule, but the Democratic senators nonetheless defended the EPA’s approach.

“I really believe this rule ought to have a chance to work,” said Sen. Barbara BoxerBarbara BoxerSenators seek to boost women in international forces Overnight Energy: Senate approves Flint aid | Union chief backs Dakota pipeline White House proxy fight breaks out on Senate floor MORE (D-Calif.), the committee’s top Democrat. “I personally would have preferred the EPA issue a stronger rule … but I do think their rule is a first step.”

Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) noted that “although the EPA rule is not as robust as what I or many others would have liked, it does, for the first time, create a federal standard to protect human health and environment.”

The House Energy and Commerce Committee has passed a bill that would allow the EPA to enforce the rule in states that do not have regulations as stringent as the federal government.

But it would also weaken the rule by extending some deadlines and adding flexibility to some of the provisions. The full House is scheduled to vote on the legislation this month.

The Republican senators did not endorse the House bill, but the industry and state witnesses called to the hearing by the GOP were generally supported the House’s effort.