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Environmentalists offer details of coal ash ruling

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A federal judge issued a memorandum Tuesday in a lawsuit challenging the Environmental Protection Agency’s failure to finalize federal coal ash regulations.

United States District Judge Reggie B. Walton issued a ruling giving the Environmental Protection Agency 60 days to name how long it will take to review and revise coal ash regulations. 

Coal ash, also referred to as fly ash, is a byproduct of burning coal.  Anything that doesn’t burn up, usually inorganic matter in the coal like shale, is left behind in boilers and is usually disposed of in landfills and settlement ponds.

Power plants in the U.S. produce about 140 million tons of the ash each year and according to the EPA, about 1,000 active coal ash storage sites exist across the nation. West Virginia is home to more than twenty sites.

Judge Walton’s ruling is the outcome of the lawsuit filed in early 2012 by nearly a dozen environmental groups challenging the EPA’s inaction to revise coal ash regulations.

In a conference call senior administrative counsel at Earthjustice, Lisa Evans, spoke about the court’s decision. She referred to the coal ash disaster that occurred in late 2008 when over a billion gallons of toxic coal ash sludge burst through the dam of a waste pond, located 60 feet above the Emory River at TVA’s Kingston Fossil Plant in Tennessee. The waste covered 300 acres below the plant, destroying homes, poisoning watersheds. The event provided impetus for many groups to demand new regulations for the disposal of the power plant waste.

“EPA is now required to come forward with a proposed schedule for completion of the ongoing coal ash rule making within 60 days," Evans said. "Consequently on or shortly after the 5th anniversary of the Kingston Coal Ash disaster, EPA must finally announce its schedule for new coal ash rules. Once approved by this court the schedule will be enforceable against the agency should it delay again. Thus today’s order creates a clear path to obtaining a binding deadline for the much delayed and critically needed coal ash rule.”

But the ruling flies in the face of the Coal Residuals Reuse and Management Act, passed in the House this past summer.  West Virginia’s Republican Congressman David McKinley introduced the bill in an attempt to revise coal ash regulations, but leaves individual states in charge of mandating rules. The act which hasn’t yet come up for a vote in the Senate limits the EPA’s authority to regulate the waste and, most importantly, disallows the EPA from labeling the waste a hazard.

“The bill that passed through the house would take away EPA’s authority to issue this rule that is the subject of the opinion," Evans said. "What the house bill was attempting to do was prevent the EPA from issuing this rule. So in 60 days we will see the proposed schedule for EPA’s issuance of the rule. And we hope that EPA will be able to proceed to issue that rule without interference by Congress.”

During a press conference environmentalists speculated the EPA will project a date within 2014 to issue their final ruling on any new regulations.


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