WASHINGTON — House Republicans pushed through legislation Friday that gives the states the power to regulate coal ash from power plants as if it were municipal garbage, pre-empting pending federal regulations that could be much tougher.
The vote on coal ash disposal was the latest of several passed by the GOP-controlled House that would shift authority away from the Environmental Protection Agency and reduce federal regulations that Republicans say are burdensome, hamper economic growth and cost jobs.
Other bills have dealt with toxic emissions from power plants, cement plants and incinerators. Like those bills, the coal ash bill is unlikely to be considered in the Democratic-controlled Senate.
Under the measure, sponsored by West Virginia Rep. David McKinley, states would have to apply the same regulations to coal ash that they use for municipal garbage. Generally, that means it would have to be put in landfills that have liners to protect groundwater, monitors to test water for contamination and equipment to control dust. The bill would not cover coal ash sitting in surface ponds or impoundments now. The vote was 267-144, with 37 Democrats voting "yes."
McKinley said his legislation was "a jobs bill and a public health bill; protecting the livelihoods and the health of our working men and women are not mutually exclusive ideas." His office pointed out that, unlike the other GOP-sponsored EPA bills, the White House had not issued a veto threat and that 14 Senate Democrats had expressed support for the bill's approach.
The Environmental Protection Agency is currently considering several options on how to regulate coal ash, from giving it a special status as a hazardous waste so it could still be recycled to classifying it as a solid waste, which comes with fewer requirements. The industry has said that even a solid waste classification would prompt the closure of some existing coal ash ponds and landfills, costing jobs and raising energy bills.
"The results of EPA's regulations would have been devastating on the effects of jobs, higher utility rates at home, and cripple a very successful emerging biproducts industry," said Rep. John Shimkus, R-Ill., chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee's environment and economy panel.
The bill allows the EPA to get involved if a state chooses not to act or the agency finds the state program deficient. But the White House said it strongly opposed the bill, saying it was insufficient to address the risks of coal ash disposal and undermined the federal government's ability to ensure requirements that adequately protect human health and the environment.
Without a minimum federal health standard, "the result will inevitably be uneven and inconsistent rules by the states; some states will do a good job, others will do a poor jobs," said Rep. Henry Waxman of California, top Democrat on the Energy and Commerce Committee. "And when they do a poor job, the public will pay the price."
The EPA's role in coal ash increased after a 2008 spill from a disposal pond at a Tennessee Valley Authority power plant in Kingston, Tenn., flooded hundreds of acres of land, damaged homes and killed fish in nearby rivers.
A federal survey conducted after the spill found the toxic leftovers of burning coal for power at nearly 600 sites in 35 states. Spills have occurred at 34 of those sites over the past decade, the agency said. Without federal guidelines, regulations of the ash disposal vary by state. Most sites lack liners and have no monitors to ensure that ash and its contents don't seep into underground aquifers.
Over the years, the volume of waste has grown as demand for electricity increased and the federal government clamped down on emissions from power plants.
In 2001, the EPA said it wanted to set a national standard for ponds or landfills used to dispose of wastes produced from burning coal.
Ash is produced in the burning of coal and is caught by scrubbers required to reduce emissions of sulfur dioxide.
The coal ash regulation is one of a host of environmental regulations targeted by Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., in a memo to House Republicans in August.
But unlike previous bills, which target regulations the EPA has either proposed or finalized, the agency hasn't made any decision on coal ash. An inspector general's report released earlier this year found that the EPA promoted the reuse of coal ash in wallboard and as filler in road embankments without properly assessing the environmental risks.
Coal ash contains arsenic, selenium, lead and mercury in low concentrations. But like many other types of energy waste — such as drilling muds — is not classified as hazardous under waste laws.
The bill is H.R. 2273