By Paul C. Barton, Gannett Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON -- Congress renewed its efforts Thursday to define the proper state and federal roles in regulating coal ash, more than four years after a disastrous spill of the substance at a Tennessee Valley Authority plant near Harriman.
Robert J. Martineau Jr., commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, told a congressional panel that states continue to support regulating coal ash management and disposal themselves -- but under federal standards established by Congress.
Coal ash is the byproduct of coal-fired electricity plants and is especially prevalent in the Southeast. It contains elements such as arsenic, cadmium and mercury that can pose health threats if not properly managed.
The TVA incident, in December 2008, resulted in more than 1 billion gallons of coal-ash slurry being dumped into the Emory and Clinch rivers.
"While we believe the states are the appropriate regulatory authority for coal ash, we also recognize there is benefit (in) some level of national consistency," Martineau told the Subcommittee on the Environment and the Economy of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
Martineau, speaking on behalf of the Environmental Council of the States, said state-level officials favor an approach to coal-ash management in which "the federal government sets standards that protect human health and the environment" while states implement, enforce and supplement the standards to meet their particular needs.
The draft legislation currently before the subcommittee, the Tennessee official said, meets those requirements and is a blueprint for a new "partnership model" between the federal and state governments on environmental issues.
If the states refuse to regulate coal ash, he said, the federal Environmental Protection Agency would be entitled to step in and do it for them.
The legislation comes at a time when the EPA continues work on new rules regarding coal ash, which are expected to be finalized in 2014.
While legislation similar to what Martineau advocated passed the House in the last Congress, it met with strong disapproval from House Democrats and failed in the Senate.
Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., ranking Democrat on Energy and Commerce, said the regulatory approach Martineau and other state officials favor "will not ensure the safe disposal of coal ash."
Waxman added, "It will not prevent groundwater contamination from unlined ash ponds or prevent coal ash impoundments from failing catastrophically."
Whether through administrative or legislative action, the California Democrat said, "it is time to resolve this issue and ensure the safe disposal of coal ash."
The Congressional Research Service, in a December 2012 analysis, also said proposed legislation would not ensure minimum standards "necessary to protect human health and the environment" because the federal government would still lack necessary authority to force states to implement them in a uniform way.
Contact Paul C. Barton at firstname.lastname@example.org