House Republicans push for power industry-friendly coal ash plan

House Republicans said May 8, at the opening of a House-Senate conference committee on a transportation bill, that they support a provision added at the last minute to the House-passed version that would turn regulation of coal ash from power plants over to the states.

The measure is designed to thwart a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency measure, proposed in 2010 but not yet finalized, to classify coal ash as either a regulator waste or a hazardous waste. Industry claims the hazardous waste designation would preclude almost all recycling of ash into things like concrete and road-construction materials, and add tremendously to the cost of ash disposal by power generators nationwide.

Those seeking tighter federal regulation of coal ash grew more vocal after the December 2008 failure of a coal ash impoundment at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s (TVA) Kingston power plant in Tennessee.

House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich., said in a May 8 statement that the bill would not only help with coal ash disposal, but would also open the way for the Keystone XL oil pipeline out of Canada.

“While the connection between these items and a transportation and infrastructure package might not seem obvious, in fact, these policies make perfect sense in the context of this package,” Upton said about the ash and Keystone XL provisions. “Coal ash is a widely used component in construction materials including concrete, so the regulatory regime governing its management has a direct effect on the cost and durability of our roads and bridges. EPA’s proposal to reclassify this material as a hazardous waste would make road construction more expensive, the infrastructure we build may not last as long, and the liability – which translates to cost – would be higher for everyone. A federal framework for states to regulate and manage this material is a common-sense alternative that maintains environmental protections without sacrificing jobs or driving up prices.”

House Energy and Power Subcommittee Chairman Ed Whitfield, R-Ky., also said he supports the ash provision in the bill. “EPA has enacted many problematic regulations in recent years and stood in the way of various projects that could benefit our economy, but if there was one that stood out as being all cost and no benefit it is the proposal to re-designate coal ash as hazardous waste,” said Whitfield, who is from one of the largest coal-producing states in the U.S.

“For decades, coal ash has been regulated as non-hazardous waste under federal and state laws,” Whitfield said. “Even the Clinton administration’s EPA decided to leave well enough alone when it reviewed the coal ash regulations back in 2000. Coal ash has many economically beneficial uses. Nearly half of what is produced is recycled into products like concrete, both stretching the supply and improving the quality of this critical material for roads and buildings.”

Coal ash is used in many other manufactured goods, and the National Association of Manufacturers estimates that up to 2,000 of their member companies use it, Whitfield added. According to the American Coal Council, the use of coal ash contributes $6bn-$11bn in annual economic benefit for the U.S. economy. “Re-designating coal ash as hazardous would put an end to these beneficial uses and result in negative environmental consequences,” Whitfield said. “And in turn, the volumes of coal ash which until now were safely mixed into concrete and other products would instead have to go to new landfills specially designed for the purpose.”

A hazardous waste designation would turn coal ash from a valuable byproduct to a costly waste product, Whitfield added. It would hurt the viability of coal-fired power plants that are already facing a “train wreck” of expensive new EPA regulations such as greenhouse gas controls and the Utility Maximum Achievable Control Technology (MACT), also known as the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, he said.

“The likely result would be plant closings, layoffs, and higher electricity rates,” said Whitfield. “In addition, it would raise the price of the concrete that goes into infrastructure projects. The American people would get less bang for the buck from this transportation bill as well as future ones. The provisions in this bill preserve the beneficial uses of coal ash by precluding its categorization as hazardous waste. They also ensure that any coal ash not used in products is disposed of in a safe manner under state direction. This bill would be a win for the environment, for jobs, and for lower electricity and concrete prices.”

McKinley and Rockefeller duke it out over how ash should be governed

Rep. David McKinley, R-W.Va., from another major coal-producing state, issued a May 7 statement in support of the coal ash provision. He said the last thing the country needs is to add hundreds of thousands of workers to the unemployment lines and an increase in road, bridge and infrastructure costs.

“That’s what is being predicted to happen if coal ash is designated as a hazardous material by the [EPA],” McKinley said. “Since 2009, the EPA and Obama Administration have been preparing a regulation to treat coal ash as a hazardous material. Such a move would increase the costs of building roads and bridges by $110 billion dollars, according to the American Road and Transportation Builders’ Association and, as stated in the Veritas Economic Report, the decision would cost the American economy 316,000 jobs.”

The ash provision has split Congress, as usual, somewhat along party lines, though coal-state Democrats are crossing party lines to support it. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va, is on the conference committee and on May 8 issued a statement talking about the transportation aspects of the bill and avoiding the coal-ash issue entirely. But on May 2, Rockefeller issued a statement emphasizing his support for coal ash recycling and dismissing what he said are misleading comments made about his record.

“I want to clear up Congressman McKinley’s misleading comments about my position on coal ash,” Rockefeller said. “I do not and have never supported federal efforts to label coal ash as a hazardous waste, and he knows it. Reuse and recycling of coal ash is absolutely in the best interests of West Virginia and the country. We just need to make sure that concerns about health and the environment are addressed, too.”

Rockefeller added: “But let’s be honest: coal ash and two other environmental provisions were added to the otherwise empty House highway bill in order to create controversy, not to solve problems. Setting standards for coal ash impoundments is, and always has been, an environmental question. Pushing this or any other controversial provision will bring down a highway bill that West Virginia workers desperately need. I’m going to keep working on coal ash reuse but I’m not going to pretend to West Virginians that it’s ready or right for the highway bill.  We need roads and bridges and the jobs that go with them in our state, not political games. House Republicans want to cut transportation funding more deeply than ever before, and they should stop trying to distract West Virginians from the harm of their real agenda.”

About Barry Cassell 20414 Articles
Barry Cassell is Chief Analyst for GenerationHub covering coal and emission controls issues, projects and policy. He has covered the coal and power generation industry for more than 24 years, beginning in November 2011 at GenerationHub and prior to that as editor of SNL Energy’s Coal Report. He was formerly with Coal Outlook for 15 years as the publication’s editor and contributing writer, and prior to that he was editor of Coal & Synfuels Technology and associate editor of The Energy Report. He has a bachelor’s degree from Central Michigan University.