House passes bill to fight coal ash rule

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The House voted Wednesday to roll back certain parts of the Obama administration’s first-ever regulations on the disposal of coal ash waste.

Lawmakers voted 258-166 in support of the bill sponsored by Rep. David McKinley (R-W.Va.), who said he wants to provide businesses more certainty than the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) sweeping rule issued in December.

“The way the rule is currently written, oversight will occur only through lawsuits, not through regulators,” McKinley said.

{mosads}The GOP says the legislation, strongly supported by coal and energy interests, maintains the health and safety standards in the EPA’s rule.

But the bill would delay parts of the December rule that aimed to protect waterways, the environment and human health from coal ash, a waste product from burning coal that contains toxic substances like arsenic, chromium and mercury. Some of the provisions would be pushed back by up to a decade.

Other provisions of the rule would be weakened or eliminated altogether in the GOP-backed bill, like mandated public postings by utilities about their coal ash ponds, and the EPA would be banned from strengthening the disposal standards in the future by designating coal ash as a hazardous substance. 

The legislation would also direct states to enforce coal ash standards, something the EPA did not have the authority to do.

Democrats warned that the bill would undermine the public health prevention measures in the regulation.

“The bottom line is that legislation is not warranted, and even if it were, this bill would not be the vehicle because it dangerously eliminates or undermines necessary protections,” said Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), the top Democrat on the House Energy & Commerce Committee.

The White House threatened to veto the measure, calling it an attempt to significantly undermine the progress in the EPA’s rule.

“EPA’s rule articulates clear and consistent national standards to protect public health and the environment, prevent contamination of drinking water and minimize the risk of catastrophic failure at coal ash surface impoundments,” the White House said Tuesday. “H.R. 1734 would, however, substantially weaken these protections.”

And while environmental groups were disappointed that the EPA did not take stronger steps in its December rule, they blasted the House’s bill.

“Big utilities and coal companies want the new rule gutted, and McKinley and the House majority are eager to oblige,” Lisa Evans, an attorney at Earthjustice, wrote in a blog post about the bill. 

The National Association of Manufacturers urged lawmakers to vote for the bill and said it would include the bill in its legislative scorecard.

“Manufacturers support H.R. 1734, which would promote the continued use of coal ash in transportation, agriculture, housing and building construction, while ensuring that the minimum federal requirements for the disposal of [coal ash] are implemented through enforceable, state-issued permits,” Aric Newhouse, the manufacturing group’s Senior Vice President, said in a statement.

Coal ash is usually stored in sprawling ponds or landfills that are located near waterways and not always lined.

The EPA’s bill fulfilled one of the earliest environmental pledges from President Obama, who took office weeks after a massive coal ash spill near Kingston, Tenn., that sent more than a billion gallons of the substance flooding into the nearby community.

Since then there have been a number of other high-profile coal ash spills, including one in February in North Carolina.

The EPA’s rule is due to take effect this fall.

Sens. John Hoeven (R-N.D.) and Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) introduced similar coal ash legislation in the Senate last week.

Tags coal ash David McKinley Environmental Protection Agency Joe Manchin John Hoeven

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