Friday, July 08, 2016

Rural Oklahoma town the poster child for EPA's failure to enforce its own coal-ash regulations

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Bokoshe, Okla., a town of 500 residents, has become the "microcosm of a fierce—some say one-sided—battle over coal ash that has dragged on in Washington’s corridors of power for nearly four decades—and is not over yet," Kristen Lombardi reports for The Center for Public Integrity. "After a disastrous, billion-gallon spill of coal ash in Tennessee in late 2008, the Environmental Protection Agency pledged to regulate this industrial waste. It then sat on its plan for five years."

"When agency officials finally acted, they chose the minimalist approach, setting baseline national standards for coal-ash disposal at more than 1,400 sites nationwide while leaving regulation essentially up to the states," Lombardi writes. "Under the coal ash rule, the agency has no authority to enforce its own requirements. At the same time, EPA officials determined that so-called beneficial uses, like the recycling that fills the pit here, could continue."

In Bokoshe, residents began complaining to state regulators in 1998 about dust from the coal-ash pit eight miles outside town, Lombardi writes. "More than a decade later, EPA got involved and in 2014 finally acknowledged that the pit has shown 'evidence' of escaping coal ash dust. But the grime that coats the town has not gone." Some residents "filed a class-action lawsuit against the pit operator and others, only to see the case dismissed."

"Utility companies and ash recyclers say such uses are safe if voluntary industry guidelines are followed," Lombardi writes. "For some uses, however, the science argues otherwise. And for others, regulation has been passed on to the U.S. Department of the Interior—which has been studying the issue for nearly a decade. Meanwhile, residents of Bokoshe cannot help but feel victimized by what they say amounts to a cruel regulatory hoax—with no end in sight. Tim Tanksley, who lives one mile from the pit, told Lombardi,  They’re still dumping it, and we’re still breathing it. It’s still making people sick.” (StateImpact Oklahoma photo by Joe Wertz: Bokoshe)

Lombardi writes, "The situation in Bokoshe exposes the weakness in the EPA’s coal ash rule, the fallacy that dumping can continue under the guise of beneficial use. To encourage recycling of coal ash, the agency exempts from federal oversight any disposal method that meets this definition. And this gives carte blanche to sites like the Making Money pit, an old coal mine where disposal of coal ash is considered a beneficial use by the state."

"For the purposes of coal ash recycling, there are two types of beneficial use: encapsulated, in which, for example, the ash becomes part of concrete or wallboard; and unencapsulated, in which loose material is reused as fill for road construction or dumped in active and abandoned coal mines, a practice known as minefilling," Lombardi reports. "The most common reuse method, minefilling remains unregulated at the federal level because of a loophole in the EPA’s coal-ash rule. The EPA handed off regulation of the practice to the Interior Department, which has yet to act. The deferral was partly the product of vigorous lobbying by the utility industry over many years." (Read more)

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