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Still unresolved, Tennessee coal-ash spill only one EPA hurdle
"I don't think I've ever seen this many major proposals coming out this quickly," said Jeffrey R. Holmstead, who headed the EPA's air-pollution efforts under Bush, and works for the law firm Bracewell & Giuliani.
Under Administrator Lisa P. Jackson, the EPA has inserted itself more deeply into the debate over mountaintop mines in Appalachia, even threatening a rare veto for a mine permit. It has also made an unprecedented threat to states in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, warning that they could be punished if they lag behind pollution-cutting targets.
And, most prominently, the agency has threatened to crack down on greenhouse-gas emissions if Congress doesn't do it first. The EPA issued a finding this month that the emissions pose a danger to public health, which would trigger a responsibility to regulate the gases in the same way as the ones that create smog.
That would be a key test for an agency that has sometimes struggled with a reputation as an environmental "nanny." Delegates gathered in Copenhagen and bickering senators have struggled to find a politically palatable way of imposing emissions cuts. Doing it by bureaucratic fiat won't be popular.
"They're going to need lots of staff. They're going to need an enormous effort, the likes of which I think they've never seen, in such a short period," said Eileen Claussen of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change and a former EPA staffer.
Even Jackson has said she would prefer that Congress approved another method for regulating emissions.
The story of the Kingston coal-ash spill underscores the difficulties facing the agency.
The spill was caused by a failure at a dam holding coal ash from a Tennessee Valley Authority power plant. No one died, but 26 homes were damaged, and residents complained of health problems afterward.
In response, the EPA conducted a survey of similar coal-ash storage facilities, finding 431 of them nationwide and 49 classified as "high hazard," where a failure could endanger human life.
The EPA's delay in issuing a new rule governing the handling of coal ash has environmentalists and business leaders worried.
Among industry groups, the concern is that the EPA will decide to treat coal ash as hazardous waste. That, they say, would curtail reusing it in cement and concrete. And, wouldn't they be sued for knowingly using hazardous waste?
"Defending something like that just scares the industry to death," said Thomas Adams of the American Coal Ash Association.
But Jeff Stant of the Environmental Integrity Project said it was crucial for the EPA to treat the waste as hazardous, which would require new protections to keep it from spreading into rivers and groundwater. He said he was concerned that the delay meant the administration was bending under industry pressure.
While the fight goes on, the EPA, the Tennessee Valley Authority and state officials have not figured out how to remove the ash that covers parts of Gupton's farm. Although the ash is topped with a protective barrier and kept moist to hold down dust, she and her husband each recently received a diagnosis of asthma.
"I don't think they will ever get it cleaned up," she said Monday.