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Republicans say EPA’s coal ash rule would create confusion

World Coal,

New US federal regulations on coal ash would impose conflicting rules on electric utilities in multiple states, according to House Republicans.

The Republicans are pushing for a law friendlier to the industries that handle waste from coal-fired power plants, including coal ash, which has been found to be more radioactive than nuclear waste.

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) officials, responding to a 2008 coal ash disaster in Tennessee and a spill last year in North Carolina, in December set new minimum requirements for storing and recycling the substance.

But the agency did not create a new federal permitting programme, instead leaving it to states to adopt the standards in their waste management plans.

Enforcing the new rule would largely fall to utilities, which must disclose how they store coal ash, and to individuals, through potential lawsuits alleging violations.

The rule "will unavoidably lead to an unpredictable array of regulatory interpretations, as judges throughout the country are forced to make extremely technical compliance decisions," Rep. John Shimkus, R-Ill., chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Environment and the Economy, said at a hearing before the panel last week.

House Republicans are pleased the EPA chose not to classify coal ash as a hazardous waste, an option favoured by environmental and public health advocates. But they're worried the agency's approach is bad for businesses that might face different coal-ash standards, depending on where the ash is stored.

"We are hearing that some states may not even attempt to adopt the new coal-ash rules, which will guarantee the problem of dual federal and state regulation of coal ash," said James Roewer, executive director of the Utility Solid Waste Activities Group that includes electric utility organisations.

EPA officials defended the new rule as a way to guard against groundwater contamination, harmful dust and massive spills from ruptured coal-ash ponds.

"The final rule is a strong, effective approach that provides critical protections to communities across the nation by helping to protect our water, land, and air," said Mathy Stanislaus, the EPA's assistant administrator for solid waste and emergency response. "We think there will be national consistency."

The rule, which does not take effect for at least six months, would require more monitoring of groundwater around coal-ash storage sites, liners for all future storage sites, more frequent inspections of those structures, closing some of the most hazardous sites and increased public disclosure about each storage site.

In 2012, more than 470 coal-fired electric utilities produced about 110 million t of coal ash in the US and Puerto Rico, according to the EPA. About 40% is recycled into other products, a process that would continue under the new rule. The rest is stored in more than 1000 coal-ash landfills and ponds around the country.

The agency has documented 157 cases in which mismanagement of coal ash has damaged human health and the environment.

One of the worst occurred in 2008 when a dike failed at the Tennessee Valley Authority's Kingston Fossil Plant, spilling 5.4 million cubic yards of coal ash into two rivers and across about 300 acres.

In February last year, about 39,000 t of coal ash spilled into the Dan River after a pipe broke below a coal-ash pond at Duke Energy's plant in Eden, North Carolina.

According to the Montgomery Advertiser, Democrats generally expressed support for the EPA's approach at Thursday's hearing, though they would have preferred that coal ash be classified as a hazardous waste.

"This rule was years in the making," said Rep. Paul Tonko, D-N.Y. "Let's get on with it."

But Democrats also said they would oppose legislation that would prevent the EPA from reconsidering the hazardous waste option.

Frank Holleman, a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, told the subcommittee that in Southeastern states, stronger protections against coal-ash contamination have come from citizen lawsuits, not state regulators.

"In the South, the people must have the power to protect themselves," said Holleman, who lives in Greenville, S.C. "Utility oversight by itself has not worked."

Edited from various sources by Sam Dodson

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