Three years ago, the rupture of a coal ash pond in Kingston, Tennessee sent 5.4 million cubic yards of a toxic slurry into neighborhoods and the Emory River. That spill focused attention on EPA’s persistent failure to come up with regulations governing disposal of coal ash waste, which EPA exempted from regulation as hazardous waste in 1993. Following the Kingston, Tennessee disaster, EPA issued proposed regulations in June 2010, seeking comments on a choice between regulating coal ash waste as a “special waste” under the hazardous waste provisions of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, or continuing to treat coal ash as lightly regulated municipal solid waste subject to RCRA Subtitle C, but with special regulations.
This week, another coal ash pile fell into the water — this time on Lake Michigan, in Wisconsin. Meanwhile, there has been no final action on EPA’s proposed coal ash regulations. Instead, last month, EPA issued a “Notice of Data Availability” seeking public comment on additional studies of coal ash constituents and toxicity submitted during the comment period on the proposed rule.
Among the studies for which EPA seeks additional public comment is a study submitted by Republican presidential candidate Michelle Bachmann — “laboratory reports with total metals and TCLP results for boiler slag fines samples.”
Coal power is the epitome of cheap and dirty. Except it is only “cheap” by virtue of externalizing huge environmental costs. Every phase of coal combustion is dirty — extraction, transport, combustion, and waste. But the coal and utility industry never lacks for political muscle — EPA’s 1993 hazardous waste exemption simply continued the statutory exemption for coal ash added to RCRA § 3001(b) by Congress in the 1980 “Bevill Amendment.”