House trims EPA’s powers over coal ash

With bipartisan support, the House on Thursday passed legislation giving states the lead role in regulating coal ash and stopping the Environmental Protection Agency from labeling the material as hazardous.

“States, utilities and hundreds of thousands of workers in the recycling industry have been waiting in limbo for a resolution. This bill meets those needs,” said Rep. Fred Upton, Michigan Republican, who is House Energy and Commerce Committee chairman.

The bill, which passed by a vote of 265 to 155 and garnered the support of 39 Democrats, gives each state control over how coal ash is managed and disposed of.

Coal ash is the leftover byproduct when coal is burned, and while it can pose some environmental risks when deposited in landfills, it’s often safely recycled and used in concrete, cement, wallboard, roofing materials and other products. Three years ago, the EPA proposed a rule cracking down on coal ash in landfills and sought to label the material as “hazardous.” Republicans argued that that designation would have killed jobs while also driving up construction and other costs.

Thursday’s measure has the support of a broad coalition of both labor and business stakeholders, including the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Associated Builders and Contractors, United Mine Workers of America, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Brick Industry Association and others.

“The public can have confidence that the central components of an effective regulatory program will be implemented at facilities across the country. Even more important, they can have confidence that a facility that does not meet environmental and safety standards will be closed,” said the Utility Workers Union of America, an affiliate of the AFL-CIO.

In a statement after the bill passed, the White House said the administration intends to work with Congress in regulating coal ash, but it also expressed concerns with the legislation in its current form. Among other things, the administration wants minimum standards set by the EPA to identify and remedy problems with state programs, the Associated Press reported.

Some House Democrats have expressed outright disapproval with Thursday’s vote, saying it could load to serious environmental abuses and possible health problems.

“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,” said Rep. Henry A. Waxman, California Democrat and one of his party’s loudest voices on environmental issues. “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.”

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