Is coal ash a hazardous substance? How should the federal government regulate it?
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has already received more than 100,000 public comments on these questions, and more keep pouring in today - the deadline for public input on two proposals to regulate coal ash.
The byproduct of coal burned at power plants, coal ash contains contaminants such as mercury, cadmium and arsenic. But it can also be recycled in a variety of products, including concrete, drywall and asphalt.
In May, the EPA suggested either classifying coal ash as a hazardous waste, subject to a heavier regulatory regime with enforcement by state and federal regulators, or designating it as a non-hazardous waste and leaving enforcement to citizen’s suits and the states.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce doesn’t like either option.
If coal ash is declared a hazardous substance, the Chamber warned, “it will create absurd results, imposing liability on a wide scale and potentially stigmatizing the hundreds if not thousands of facilities on which coal ash has come to be located. This will threaten the robust and environmentally sound [coal ash] beneficial reuse industry.”
Allowing citizen’s suits is just as bad, wrote William Kovacs, senior vice president for the Environment, Technology & Regulatory Affairs Division.
“EPA has elevated citizen suits to a central enforcement role apparently on the premise that litigious, self-interested special interest groups are the functional equivalents of state regulators,” he wrote.
The Sierra Club, which on Wednesday held a rally in front of EPA headquarters, strongly favors the more stringent regulation that would classify coal ash as a hazardous waste.
"As the mother of two young children, I'm calling on the EPA to do the right thing and regulate coal ash as a toxic waste. Far too many children are exposed to this dangerous substance, with devastating consequences to their health, education and well-being," said Mary Kadera, chair of the Sierra Club's Mount Vernon group, in a press release.
According to the club, more than 110,000 people have submitted comments to the EPA through the Sierra Club’s website.
“The people have spoken, and overwhelmingly they spoke out for federally enforceable protections from this toxic waste. We call on the EPA to listen," said Mary Anne Hitt, director of the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign.