WASHINGTON (AP) — A House committee approved a bill Wednesday granting states authority to regulate waste generated from coal burned for electricity, largely bypassing a federal rule issued last year.
The House Energy and Commerce Committee approved the bill 32-19, sending the measure to the full House. The bill's sponsor, Rep. David McKinley, R-W.Va., said it would improve a rule issued in December by the Environmental Protection Agency.
The EPA rule set the first national standards for so-called coal ash, treating it more like household garbage than a hazardous material. McKinley said the EPA rule leaves open the possibility that coal ash could be designated as hazardous, creating uncertainty for industry.
"The science has been determined — coal ash is not a hazardous material," McKinley said. "But as a result of this administration's executive actions, we have uncertainty" for more than 300,000 workers employed by coal ash recyclers and related industries.
McKinley's bill would allow states to set up a coal ash permit program, using the federal rule as a minimum requirement. States that choose not to set up a program would be subject to regulation established by the EPA.
Environmental groups say the bill would strip important safety requirements included in the EPA rule. Some Democrats said the bill was unnecessary, adding that Congress should wait until the EPA rule is enforced before changing it.
"Ultimately the only real test of whether this rule takes the correct approach or not is by implementing it," said Rep. Paul Tonko, D-N.Y.
Environmentalists had pushed for the Obama administration to designate coal ash as hazardous, citing hundreds of cases nationwide in which coal ash waste has tainted waterways or underground aquifers, in many cases legally.
The EPA said the new rule would protect communities from the risks associated with coal ash waste sites and hold the companies operating them accountable.
The new rule also would apply to closed coal ash ponds at sites where utilities still have active operations, such as the Duke Energy plant in Eden, North Carolina, where the sudden collapse of a drainage pipe triggered a massive spill last year that coated 70 miles of the Dan River in gray sludge.
Duke, the nation's largest electricity company, announced in February that it would admit guilt on nine misdemeanor counts and pay $102 million in fines and restitution over years of illegal pollution leaking from coal ash dumps at five North Carolina power plants, including the one in Eden.