In Maryland’s Zekiah Swamp, one of the Chesapeake Bay’s most important tributaries, 8.4 million tons of coal ash in pits from former operations of the Morgantown power plant are leaking into groundwater. Residents on the Moapa River Reservation north of Las Vegas blame a spike in respiratory illnesses on the uncovered ash ponds and ash dump from a generating station nearby.

The ash left after burning coal includes toxic elements such as arsenic, lead, cadmium, selenium and mercury. Produced by 431 coal-fired power plants, which supply 36 percent of the nation’s electricity, coal ash piles up at the staggering rate of 140 million tons a year.

More than 40 percent of it is recycled to help make concrete, gypsum wallboard and pavement. But utilities store the rest in landfills, ponds or mines, and evidence has been growing in recent years that leakage is a problem.

“The time has come for common-sense national protections to assure safe disposal of these materials,” Environmental Protection Agency administrator Lisa P. Jackson said. That was in 2010.

Despite ongoing controversy — in the last week and a half alone environment groups have sued 14 power plants in North Carolina and four in Illinois over coal ash contamination — no one expects anything more to happen before the election. After that, it depends on the priorities of the party controlling the White House.

Curt and Debbie Havens stand near First Energy's Little Blue coal ash impoundment. Their health and their community have been extremely affected by pollution from the country's largest coal ash disposal site. (Chris Jordan-Bloch/Earthjustice)

President Obama and challenger Mitt Romney both stress that they support coal operations, and Republicans and Democrats agree that the federal government needs to establish a national standard for managing coal ash, also known as fly ash.

Water contaminated by coal ash violated federal drinking water or health standards at at least 197 sites in 37 states, including seven in Virginia and three in Maryland, according to the environmental group Earthjustice. The EPA gave 45 ponds at 27 locations in the United States a “high hazard potential rating,” meaning that if the encasing for the ponds break, it would probably result in the loss of human life.

But should coal ash be labeled a hazardous waste? That determination will give the EPA direct enforcement authority over coal ash, rather than leaving it to the states, and will impose new handling procedures on utilities that will increase their costs. And while EPA and environmentalists say this will heighten the incentive for recycling, given the higher cost of disposal, recycling companies and mining industry officials predict fewer companies will be willing to incorporate coal ash into their products if it’s labeled as hazardous.

Two and a half years ago Jackson outlined three possible rules for storing and disposing of coal ash, but none have become final. The first would designate it a hazardous waste; the other two would regulate it as a solid waste.

Any of the options would increase the frequency of pond inspections, impose new health and environmental protection requirements, require controls on dust blowing from the sites and close dumps in sinkholes and other ground that could give way. Declaring it a hazardous waste would ban the construction of any new coal ash ponds and require all existing ponds to be phased out, forcing companies to put it in landfills designed to handle hazardous waste. One of the less stringent options EPA proposed would not require closure of unlined pounds, which have been a major source of contamination.

House Republicans have passed legislation twice that would give states primary authority over coal ash sites but allow the EPA to step in if it determined state oversight was inadequate; Democrats have blocked the measure on the grounds it is not stringent enough.

Eric Schaeffer, who directs the Environmental Integrity Project, an advocacy group, said the EPA has delayed issuing a final rule out of fear of angering those who already accuse the administration of unfairly targeting the coal industry by imposing new pollution restrictions on power plants and stricter standards for disposing of mining waste.

An environmental group has identified 197 U.S. sites in 37 states where coal ash has contaminated groundwater, including seven in Virginia and three in Maryland.

“The reason they’re not acting on the coal ash rule is politics,” he said. “They don’t want any more rules on coal before the election. It’s as simple as that.”

EPA spokeswoman Alisha Johnson said in an e-mail that the agency “is following long established rulemaking procedures and requirements,” and is reviewing additional technical data along with “more than 450,000 comments on the proposed rule, which raised a number of complex issues.”

Business groups and some Republicans are also frustrated with federal inaction. Kirk Benson, CEO of the nation’s biggest fly ash recycler, HW Headwaters, said it’s challenging to raise capital while EPA delays issuing the rule.

“They’re between a rock and hard place. So they do nothing,” Benson said in an interview. “Doing nothing is a problem for us.”

And Rep. David B. McKinley (R-W.Va.), who authored the bill passed by the House on coal ash, said in an interview that Democrats have blocked what would have been “the first national standard we were having for impoundment.”

The question of how to deal with coal combustion waste has frustrated policymakers for decades. After the EPA proposed in 1978 that coal ash be regulated as a hazardous waste under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, then-Rep. Tom Bevill (D-Ala.) countered with a 1981 amendment that exempted it. Nearly two decades later the Clinton administration announced it would designate it a “contingent hazardous waste,” but utilities said such a move would cost billions. Former EPA administrator Carol Browner reversed course and said the agency would classify it as a solid waste, but the issue lay idle during the Bush administration.

Mining and utility officials, along with coal ash recyclers, back the less stringent options.The hazardous waste designation “would require a wholesale change” under which the company would either have to truck the ash off-site or establish its own hazardous waste landfill, said Starla Lacy, NV Energy’s executive of environmental services and safety.

Environmental and community activists, however, said more lenient controls would fail to eliminate the health and environmental threats.

Curt and Debbie Havens are debating whether they should sell the family home in Chester, W. Va., in which they have lived for close to four decades. The Havens have documented that water from First Energy’s Little Blue Run coal ash pond has seeped onto their land, and sometimes the smell of hydrogen sulfide makes it impossible to sit on their back porch. Repeated hydrogen sulfide exposure can cause respiratory problems.

Debbie Havens, who is negotiating to sell her home to First Energy, said she and her husband don’t want to sell, but “I just hope we get out of here before one of us gets sick, and that’s the rest of our life.”

The Moapa Band of Paiutes members are far less able to move.

“This is our birthplace,” said William Anderson, the tribe’s chairman. “This is our home.” The reservation is adjacent to the Reid Gardner Generating Station. Clouds of coal ash sometimes blow over from a landfill next the plant; residents question why 10 of 15 children living closest to the station have asthma, and the groundwater has had 136 known drinking water violations since 2010. The Sierra Club launched “The Cost Of Coal,” a project aimed at pressuring the plant to close.

Lacy, who helps oversee operations at the plant, said the company has paid for third-party air quality monitoring on the reservation for more than six years and has not identified any violations of federal standards. The company has applied a mineral coating to ash piles to keep it in place, she added, and all its ponds are double-lined with monitoring sensors to detect a leak.

“We’re subject to intense scrutiny and routine inspections” by state officials, Lacy added.

Zekiah Swamp in Charles County, abuts the Faulkner landfill on its western edge. The Morgantown power plant started dumping coal ash into the unfilled landfill in the 1970s; GenOn Energy took over the facility in 2010 and stopped the practice. Spokeswoman Misty Allen said the company “will soon begin construction to install a synthetic cap over the fly ash, which will mitigate, if not eliminate over time, the risk of leachate.”

Earthjustice senior attorney Lisa Evans said it took a 2011 federal lawsuit filed by Maryland officials to prompt GenOn’s action: “Lawsuits are changing corporate behavior, but that’s not a safety plan for the nation.”