White House Sidelines the Public in Coal Ash Debate

On Dec. 22, 2008, an earthen dam holding back a pond of coal ash in Kingston, Tenn., broke, sending 5.4 million cubic yards of toxic goo cascading across the landscape. That's enough to fill the White House from top to bottom 200 times over.

Coal ash is nasty stuff. The byproduct of coal combustion, coal ash can contain arsenic, lead, chromium, and other heavy metals. While lawmakers and regulators have worked to keep these toxins from polluting the air, little action has been taken on the ground. The handling and disposal of coal ash remains unregulated, allowing it to be precariously stored in open air ponds, which led to the 2008 spill that ravaged western Tennessee.

The spill thrust the coal ash issue into national prominence. Congress launched investigations, and, in March 2009, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) pledged to propose by year's end a new regulation better protecting public health and the environment from coal ash's effects.

After its announcement, EPA spent the next few months fleshing out the details of its proposed rule. Insiders suspect EPA intends to declare coal ash a hazardous substance under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, the major environmental law covering the handling and disposal of hazardous wastes.

But the contents of the proposal remained hidden from public view when the agency sent a draft to the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) for review on Oct. 16, 2009. OIRA reviews agencies' draft proposed and final regulations before they are published; the content of the draft is not typically disclosed. The review stage is usually the last major step before agencies unveil their rules to the public.

For the coal ash rule, that's where the wheels came off.

Read the rest of this piece at The Huffington Post.

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