Compromised Coal Ash Rule Belatedly Unveiled
Late Changes Tip Scales against Tough Regulation as Gray Areas Abound
Washington, DC — A confusing and crippled proposal to regulate coal combustion wastes is finally ready for public scrutiny, according to documents posted today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The official proposal is the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s response to the disastrous December 2008 coal ash impoundment spill in Tennessee but has been watered down after intense industry lobbying in the White House and still suffers from a welter of regulatory uncertainties.
The proposed regulation appears in today’s Federal Register to kick off a 90-day public comment period. EPA’s original proposal was to classify coal ash as a hazardous waste but the Obama White House forced it to add industry-sponsored options, thus presenting a menu of choices rather than one plan. Reflecting this odd smorgasbord arrangement, EPA claims it is “opening a national dialogue” on what is appropriate regulation rather than seeking public input on a specific public health measure.
EPA announced its proposal back on May 4th but, unusually, the more than 300-page final proposal has undergone further rewrites during the ensuing seven weeks, including:
- In summarizing the costs and benefits, EPA has flip-flopped back and forth on whether the potential benefits of strict regulation are a positive $87 billion or a negative $230 billion (a mind- numbing figure that EPA’s regulatory analysis explains was based on industry and other stakeholders’ assertions that a hazardous waste status would create a “stigma” against so-called “beneficial use” of coal ash). This $300 billion plus difference has yet to be clearly explained; and
- Although this is the final “proposed rule,” EPA warns that additional clarifying language regarding the applicability of the proposal to a wide variety of specific scenarios and uses may be posted later on its website. “The Obama administration has invited the coal industry to place its heavy thumb on the regulatory scales,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, whose organization has drawn attention to EPA’s failure to study potential adverse health and environmental effects from allowing coal ash to be put into an array of consumer, agricultural and commercial products. “Rather than propose one clear rule, EPA appears to be making it up as it goes along.”
Despite its regulatory role, EPA is in a partnership with industry to promote re-use of coal ash. This partnership called the Coal Combustion Product Partnership (or C2P2) has been temporarily suspended because it “was deemed appropriate to foster dialogue on the proposal evenhandedly with all interested parties through the public comment process….We have suspended active participation in the Partnership; we are bullish on beneficial use,” exclaims an internal agency e-mail.
“EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson pledged that she would make her decisions based on science but this proposal makes a mockery of that promise,” added Ruch, noting that Jackson allowed the White House to completely reconfigure what EPA had recommended. “This was the Obama administration’s first really tough environmental play call and it punted.”