The House on Thursday passed legislation giving states greater control over the management of coal ash, a coal combustion byproduct that poses environmental threats when put in landfills but is also commonly recycled for use in cement, concrete and other products.
Some Democrats saw the measure as yet another attempt by the Republican majority to strip the Environmental Protection Agency of authority, but the bill passed with Democratic support. The vote was 265-155, with 39 Democrats backing it.
And the White House, while voicing concerns over some aspects of the bill, did not issue a veto threat as it often does with GOP environmental bills, leaving open up the possibility of compromise as the bill moves to the Senate.
Focus on coal ash increased after the 2008 failure of a coal ash impoundment, or storage area, in Kingston, Tenn., that resulting in the spilling of more than 5 million cubic yards of coal ash, contaminating local waterways and requiring a cleanup expected to cost more than $1 billion.
In 2010, after that disaster, the EPA proposed a rule that would treat coal ash in landfills and other storage areas as hazardous material.
The EPA has yet to finalize the rule, and the House bill would stop the agency from imposing the hazardous material designation. It would give the federal government authority to provide minimum standards for the management of coal ash but leave it to the states to develop permit programs.
It would require installation of groundwater monitoring at all structures containing coal ash and set deadlines for meeting groundwater protection standards. Companies with impoundments found to be leaking would have up to 10 years to fix the problem.
"For the first time, there will be a uniform national standard for disposal," said Rep. David McKinley, R-W.Va., sponsor of the legislation.
He said that the United States now recycles about 40 percent of the 140 million tons of coal ash produced annually, less than the 65 percent in China or 95 percent in Japan. Having the EPA designate coal ash as a hazardous material would "essentially destroy the ability to recycle coal ash, dramatically increase the cost of electricity and crush hundreds of thousands of jobs across America."
But Rep. Henry Waxman of California, senior Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said, "This debate is not about a war on coal or putting a stigma on coal ash. It's not about whether state governments are inherently better than the federal government.
"It's not about job-killing regulations. This debate is about whether or not we are going to allow coal ash disposal sites to contaminate our water supplies and threaten human health," Waxman said.
The White House, in its statement on the bill, said the administration hopes to work with Congress on legislation setting standards for managing coal ash while encouraging the beneficial uses of the material.
But it also listed several concerns with the House bill, including ensuring there is authority to address inactive or abandoned disposal sites, authority for taking corrective action on unlined or leaking impoundments and clear minimum standards for the EPA to identify and remedy state program deficiencies.