WASHINGTON - Environmental groups already frustrated over how long it is taking the federal government to develop regulations for toxic coal ash are even more alarmed by what they now are hearing from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The new rules won't be finished until 2012, a top EPA official told environmentalists last week. Another EPA official suggested in a published report the rules might even be delayed until 2013.
The news is especially disturbing, say those who have been pushing for the regulations, because it appears the Obama administration is putting off the politically risky decision until after next year's election.
"That's what appears to be happening," said Chandra Taylor, senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center. "We're not getting heard, apparently, if this decision is being put off even one more day, and that's just a real, real disappointment."
Stephen Smith, executive director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, added: "There is a high degree of frustration among a number of folks within our community. The can just keeps getting kicked down the road."
The EPA said Friday it is committed to "expeditiously" developing the first-ever federal regulations for coal ash stored in ponds or landfills.
"The target date for release of a final rule will be determined, pending a full evaluation of all the information and comments EPA received on the proposal," the agency said in a statement. "As we have said before publicly, the rule will likely not be published this year. Beyond that, no date has been set."
Even before she was officially on the job, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson promised during her confirmation hearing that under her watch the agency would look at ways to regulate toxic coal ash in light of a catastrophic ash spill at the Tennessee Valley Authority's Kingston Fossil Plant on Dec. 22, 2008.
About 5.4 million cubic yards of coal ash broke free when a storage pond collapsed, flooding into the Emory River and adjoining countryside, damaging homes and property.
Last May, the EPA said it intends to propose the first-ever federal regulations for coal-ash disposal, but left open the question of whether the ash should be treated as a hazardous substance. The new rules had been expected to be released by the end of last year. But in December, Jackson announced they would be delayed "for a short period" while the agency completed its analysis.
Last Tuesday, EPA Deputy Administrator Lisa Feldt told a gathering of environmentalists in Washington that the regulations would be delayed until 2012, said Lisa Evans, an attorney for the advocacy group Earthjustice.
"What we heard was that the administration is working very hard on the rule, and it's not expected to be completed by the end of the year," Evans said. "Beyond that, they did not tell us much."
The EPA says it has gotten 450,000 public comments on the proposed rules and is reviewing those remarks. But, "I would like to see the rule completed this year, despite the work ahead for the EPA," Evans said. "I think the issues are clear, the threat is real, and timely action is needed."
The sense of urgency that seemed to inhabit the EPA after the Kingston coal-ash spill appears to have faded as the proposed regulations have run into opposition from industry groups and a new political climate in Washington has made it difficult for the agency to move ahead on a number of proposals, Smith said.
Still, "It does not serve the Obama administration well to have made commitments like this in a time of crisis and then fail to follow through with them in a timely manner," he said.
Environmentalists say they also are concerned that interest in coal-ash regulation appears to be vanishing in Congress, particularly in the U.S. House, which since January has been run by a new Republican majority.
In 2009, when the Kingston spill was just a few months old and Democrats were still in charge, a subcommittee with jurisdiction over the TVA held at least four hearings on coal-ash disposal. But since the GOP regained control in January, there has been only one hearing on the topic - and that was about a bill that would bar federal regulation of coal ash as a hazardous substance.
The bill, sponsored by U.S. Rep. David McKinley, R-W.Va., is backed by the construction industry, utilities and other groups that argue regulating coal ash as a hazardous material would cause electricity rates to rise and make it impossible to use recycled ash in products such as concrete.
"It's disappointing and par for the course - and what I would expect to see in this legislative climate," Taylor said of the McKinley legislation.
Regardless, "to put off safeguards that protect public health and the environment because of unproven claims, I think that's not a reason to shirk the duty of passing protective regulations," she said.
Michael Collins may be reached at 202-408-2711 or firstname.lastname@example.org.