Dems say GOP coal ash bill is premature

House Democrats are saying that the GOP’s bill on coal ash disposal is premature, since a regulation on coal ash has only just been made final.

Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s environment subpanel said at a Wednesday hearing that lawmakers should wait to see how the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) coal ash rule pans out before proposing bills to amend it.

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Republicans drafted the bill to resolve some problems they identified with the regulation, including the limited certainty that it provides to utilities operating coal power plants and the fact that the EPA would have almost no ability to enforce the standards.

“At this point … I do not see the need for legislation,” said Rep. Paul TonkoPaul David TonkoHouse Democrats push automakers to rebuff Trump, join California's fuel efficiency deal Overnight Energy: Democrats seek help in appealing to conservatives on climate | Whistleblowers say Interior sidelined scientists | Automakers strike fuel efficiency deal with California in rebuff to Trump Interior whistleblowers say agency has sidelined scientists under Trump MORE (D-N.Y.), ranking member of the subcommittee.

“There is a need for rigorous, consistent and fair oversight of the rule’s implementation,” he said. “If the rule does not result in appropriate coal ash disposal, or if it results in conflicts between state and federal authorities, or leads to excessive litigation, it can be revised or Congress can pass legislation to correct any problems that are identified.”

Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), top Democrat on the full committee, agreed with Tonko.

“I do not see a need for legislation at this time,” he said. “Instead, I think EPA and the states should be allowed to move forward and implement the final rule, subject to this Committee's oversight.”

The December rule from the EPA set the first national standards for disposal of coal ash, which often sits in ponds near major waterways and contains toxic substances like mercury and arsenic.

It sets new standards for ponds and dry disposal sites designed to stop leaks and major spills, and requires that they are not located near sensitive areas like wetlands and earthquake zones.

Utilities and coal ash recyclers avoided the worst regulations, which could have labeled coal ash as hazardous and required sweeping new standards.

But environmentalists complained that the rule did not go far enough, since they were seeking a hazardous designation. In addition, the rules can only be enforced through citizen lawsuits.

Republicans said their bill maintains the main protections in the EPA’s rule. It adds certainty for industry by preventing the EPA from enacting stricter rules and reducing the need for lawsuits.

But Lisa Evans, an attorney with Earthjustice, told the panel that the rule weakens or delays many of the most important provisions of the EPA rule.

Nonetheless, the GOP was proud of its work.

“We heard from almost all stakeholders at our January hearing that a legislative solution is still needed to best regulate coal ash,” said Rep. Ed Shimkus (R-Ill.), the subcommittee’s chairman.

“The legislation before us … ensures that the states have the flexibility they need to make the program work and are able to complete it in a reasonable time frame,” said Rep. David McKinley (R-W.Va.), the bill’s author.