WASHINGTON - A legislative proposal to establish federal guidelines for coal ash storage and disposal would take significant funding and time to implement, an Interior Department official testified Thursday.
"This new program would apply not just to those areas with coal mining activity but also to a new universe of materials and sites beyond active and abandoned coal mine sites," said John Craynon at a hearing of the House Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources.
Mr. Craynon, who's with the Interior's Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement, noted the agency has not adopted a position on the bill.
"As you know, this would be a very significant expansion of OSM's authority and scope of responsibilities," he said. "Additionally, we believe the ambitious six-month timeframe allowed for publication of a regulatory program would be difficult to meet."
The hearing focused on a bill sponsored by Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.V., that would regulate the management of coal combustion waste. Rep. Rahall said the recent coal ash spill in Kingston, Tenn., shows "the issue can't be ignored."
On Dec. 22, the dam at an earthen retention pond burst at the Tennessee Valley Authority's Kingston Fossil Plant, releasing about 1.1 billion gallons of sludge, some containing toxic metals, onto nearby land and into the Emory River.
"I believe we have a ticking time bomb on our hands," Rep. Rahall said. "The electric utility industry generates 131 million tons of coal ash each year. Yet the disposal of this massive amount of material is the subject of a patchwork of state regulation, some very good, some not so good, some bordering on the nonexistent."
But subcommittee ranking member Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colo., said the bill amounts to an unfunded mandate and would unnecessarily muddle existing regulations.
"My main point is that, under this legislation, the Office of Surface Mining will have to expand into 10 further states," he said. "And it seems that such expansion will complicate an already complicated (process)."
Nick Akins, an executive vice president with American Electric Power, a utility that provides power to 11 states, including Tennessee, voiced support for Rep. Rahall's bill.
"Because different state approaches exist for regulating dam safety, the principle of having some level of federal oversight or standards to provide consistency across the country has merit," he said.