House Rules Panel Clears Coal Ash Bill For Floor Action; White House Hints at Veto

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By Dean Scott

The House Rules Committee cleared the way Oct. 12 for floor debate on a bill that would gives states primary oversight over coal ash and restrict the Environmental Protection Agency's ability to regulate the material.

The panel's 5–2 vote on a procedural rule that clears the way for relatively quick passage of the Coal Residuals Reuse and Management Act (H.R. 2273) and limits debate to six amendments on Oct. 14, when the House is slated to take up the measure.

The Obama administration earlier in the day issued a statement of administration policy opposing the measure and warned that it would threaten health protections, but it stopped short of threatening a presidential veto.

The bill, introduced by Rep. David McKinley (R-W.Va.) with 32 mostly Republican cosponsors, would prohibit EPA from regulating coal ash as hazardous waste and authorize each state to oversee coal ash permitting programs, much as they now do with existing municipal solid waste programs.

The action comes in the midst of House debate on H.R. 2250, a bill targeting EPA rules known as boiler MACT standards, which set maximum achievable control technology standards for hazardous air pollutants from boilers, process heaters, and certain incinerators.

The House late Oct. 12 resumed debate on the more than 20 amendments pending on that bill, the EPA Regulatory Relief Act of 2011, but Republican leaders put off formal votes on the measures as well as final passage until at least Oct. 13 (197 DEN A-1, 10/12/11).

Rule Limits Debate on Amendments.

The procedural rule approved by the Rules Committee will ensure that debate is limited on the coal ash bill, in part by allowing one Republican amendment by Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.), who chairs a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee, and five Democratic amendments.

Shimkus' amendment would clarify that states may request technical assistance from EPA and would expand groundwater monitoring requirements, as well as add technical changes.

The Democratic amendments include one from Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), the top Democrat on the House energy committee, to ensure that state permitting programs contain “criteria necessary to protect human health and the environment.”

Bill Targets 2010 EPA Proposal.

The bill would head off EPA's attempts to regulate coal ash in the wake of the 2008 structural failure of a coal ash pond at a Tennessee Valley Authority power plant in Kingston, Tenn.

EPA in May 2010 essentially proposed two options: one to subject the material to hazardous waste regulations under Subtitle C of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act and the other to continue to manage it as nonhazardous waste under Subtitle D and leave regulatory authority with states (85 DEN A-11, 5/5/10).

The rules panel action also cleared the way for floor debate of an amendment by Rep. John Carney (D-Del.) to require coal ash impoundment areas to meet structural requirements within five years.

The committee also cleared an amendment by Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) to require states that set up coal ash permitting programs to first notify EPA and the public that they intend to do so.

Also cleared for floor debate were separate amendments by Reps. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) and Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.). The Jackson Lee amendment would require EPA to report to Congress within five years of the bill's enactment on whether the state permit programs are impacting human health, while Rush's proposal would ensure that EPA retains authority to inspect coal ash disposal structures if it finds a state has not adequately enforced its permitting program.

Bill Part of Broad Deregulatory Effort.

Democrats argue that the coal ash bill is only the latest effort by House Republicans to delay or roll back Obama administration environmental rules, including efforts to curb mercury and other pollutants from power plants.

The House in recent weeks has passed bills to delay and revamp air pollutant limits for cement kilns (H.R. 2681) as well as a measure known as the TRAIN Act (H.R. 2401) that would roll back EPA's Cross-State Air Pollution Rule and the boiler MACT standards (191 DEN A-12, 10/3/11).

With the House nearing a similar debate on the coal ash bill, House Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier (R-Calif.) said before his panel's vote Oct. 12 that Republicans had decided on a “structural” rule allowing only six amendments rather than the comparatively open rule that allow days of debate on the boiler bill. The boiler MACT measure has been on the floor since Oct. 6.

Dreier said he “would have preferred” an open procedural rule on the coal ash measure but that House leaders were hoping to wrap up work on both the coal ash and boiler measures by the end of the week.

By Dean Scott