Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., on July 18 called on the Department of Interior to ensure the protection of communities in its current consideration of the rules that will govern the potential disposal of coal ash in abandoned mine shafts and reclaimed surface mines.
In a letter sent to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, Markey asks for documents related to the ongoing development of the new ash rule to ensure that it is being done transparently and in consultation with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and local communities that could be impacted.
“Filling mine shafts and reshaping destroyed mountains with coal ash may temporarily hide these toxic waste products, but without the proper safeguards, there is no way to guarantee it won’t eventually reach drinking water supplies or impact the air we breathe,” said Markey. “The coal industry would like to say about coal ash ‘out of sight, out of mind.’ But without the proper protections, it will end up being ‘out of sight, in our water.’”
Coal ash, a byproduct of the combustion of coal in power plants, contains toxic metals such as arsenic, lead, mercury, cadmium, hexavalent chromium, and selenium. Coal companies have already started to dispose of coal ash in mine shafts and to “re-contour” lands affected by mountaintop removal mining, Markey noted. In many states, the use of coal ash is exempt from all regulations or restrictions, necessitating federal rules and guidelines that will ensure public health and the environment are protected, he said.
The letter cites the infamous December 2008 ash spill at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Kingston coal plant in Tennessee, which fouled local streams and is costing TVA hundreds of millions of dollars to clean up. In response to that spill, EPA in 2010 issued two proposals, neither of which has been finalized, to regulate coal ash as a either a regular waste or a toxic waste. Neither of these proposals addresses disposal or re-use of this waste in coal mine shafts and reclaimed mine surface areas, Markey noted. He said that EPA in the past has said it would work with Interior on a new rule covering these disposal methods.
Markey noted that Interior in 2007 issued an advanced notice of proposed rulemaking about plans to regulate coal ash going into mine sites. In 2008, the agency issued a proposed rule, then withdrew it. Recently, Interior has indicated that it wants to re-visit this proposal, Markey added. He pointed out to Salazar that he is the Ranking Member on the House Natural Resources Committee, which has oversight in this area.
Companies that market coal ash and related combustion byproducts argue that it is no more toxic than common dirt and have opposed any plans to regulate ash as a hazardous waste.