Momentum built for new rules in December 2008, when the containment wall of a coal-ash pond at a Tennessee Valley Authority power plant gave way, sending more than 1 billion gallons of the arsenic- and lead-laden waste into the town of Kingston. The spill flooded homes and dumped lingering toxins into the local water supply.
At her confirmation hearing weeks later, Lisa Jackson, the incoming administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, promised to review the existing rules for storing coal waste, and by October of that year agency scientists had prepared a plan to radically change them. EPA was ready to propose reclassifying coal ash as a hazardous waste and to issue the first set of binding federal standards for its storage and disposal.
Before EPA could publicize its preferred approach, however, officials had to route it through the White House Office of Management and Budget, which conducts interagency reviews of regulations that are deemed to be economically significant. And that's where everything changed. The rules lingered at the White House for nearly seven months, and when they emerged, the unambiguous push for stricter standards had been removed.
The draft that EPA sent to the White House also mentioned a second option for regulating the waste, which would assign the ash nonhazardous status and leave enforcement to the states — an arrangement that has been in place for decades. But the agency didn't endorse that approach, saying it "would not be protective of human [health] and the environment." During the White House review, however, the hazardous and nonhazardous options were placed on equal footing.
The coal-mining and utility industries applauded the elevation of the nonhazardous option in 2010, saying it was enough to ensure public safety and that the stricter alternative would place an unnecessary burden on coal-fired power plants.
EPA released that "multiple choice" proposal in May 2010. Since then, little has happened. More than three years later, the agency has not released a final rule, and the only sign of life on the issue was EPA's October 2011 request to the public for more information.
Why did the administration reverse course on coal ash? The White House referred questions about the 2009 change to OMB's press office, which did not reply. For its part, EPA insists that it's simply doing due diligence. The agency is evaluating new data and looking through the nearly half-million comments it has received on the proposed rule, said EPA spokeswoman Alisha Johnson. She declined to comment on when the agency might comply with the federal court's order to publish a schedule for finishing the rule.
The administration's environmental critics, however, say the troubles are not technical or scientific but political. The push for coal-ash rules has few congressional champions and no shortage of critics. The House in June voted to block EPA from declaring the waste hazardous, with 39 Democrats joining a Republican majority. Also voting in favor was Republican Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, whose Tennessee district includes the site of TVA's Kingston spill. The bill is likely dead in the Senate.