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. 

They argue the EPA's plans have created uncertainty among industries that use coal ash. The substance has a range of industrial uses, including the manufacture of shingles, wallboard and concrete.

Many Democrats argued that the bill would lead to new environmental risks, but 39 Democrats voted with Republicans to help pass H.R. 2218, the Coal Residuals Reuse and Management Act.


"EPA continues to leave a hazardous waste designation on the table, even though three decades of science in fact point the other way, that coal ash is not hazardous," Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.) said in support of the bill.

The EPA has also considered less-stringent rules that would leave more power with power companies and states. But Shimkus said there is still plenty of uncertainty that is "contributing to the loss of current and future recycling" of coal ash.

"A 'no' vote against this bill means that you support less durable, more expensive highways, schools and green buildings," he said.

Democratic opponents argued that the bill is a GOP attempt to stop the EPA from regulating coal ash completely, which would let power plants that burn coal escape requirements to safely dispose of the ash.

"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."

But Republicans noted that the bill includes a minimum set of federal standards that states would have to meet for regulating coal ash, including groundwater monitoring. The legislation would let states adopt coal ash permit programs, and would have to notify those standards to the EPA.

The GOP also stressed the importance of coal ash to industries that use it as a raw material, and noted that even the Obama administration recognized this in its statement on the bill this week.

"The administration would like to work with Congress to address the important issues with H.R. 2218 to allow for development, implementation, and enforcement of appropriate standards for facilities managing coal combustion residuals, while encouraging the beneficial use of this economically important material," the White House said in its Statement of Administration Policy.

That statement did not say President Obama would veto the bill. But it did say the administration has "concerns" with it, and wants to see it deal with abandoned disposal sites, authority to take action with leaking sites, groundwater protection standards, and minimum EPA standards to fix state programs.

Before passing the bill, the House approved one Democratic amendment from Rep. Gerry ConnollyGerald (Gerry) Edward ConnollyDem rep hopes Omar can be 'mentored,' remain on Foreign Affairs panel Fairfax removed from leadership post in lieutenant governors group Virginia Legislative Black Caucus calls on Fairfax to step down MORE (D-Va.). Connolly's language would require states to update their certification documents with the EPA and to include a state plan for dealing with spills or leaks, and it was passed in a voice vote.

The House rejected two other Democratic amendments. One from Waxman would have required assurances that state permit programs protect human health and the environment. Republicans said this was redundant, and it was voted down 185-231.

The second was from Rep. Paul Tonko (D-N.Y.), which would have allowed the EPA to find state coal ash plans deficient if they threaten human health or the environment. This was turned away 176-239.