- Photo courtesy of IPL
- The coal ash pond at IPL's Harding Street station.
A U.S. Senate effort is underway to block more restrictive federal regulation of coal combustion — and its ash-pond byproducts.
The legislation comes on the heels of a retaining bluff collapse in Oak Creek, Wis., which sent coal ash spilling into Lake Michigan, which provides drinking water to more than 40 million people.
The "Coal Residuals Reuse and Management Act," or Senate Bill 1751, sponsored by Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., would block legislation instituting federal regulation of coal byproducts. The U.S. House of Representatives passed an identical bill last month.
Currently, coal combustion is regulated by state policy and inspection.
In 2008, a coal ash spill that covered 300 acres in Kingston, Tenn., cost the Tennessee Valley Authority $1.2 billion in clean-up.
The disaster prompted President Barack Obama to propose rules for the 678 coal ash ponds that could possibly contaminate drinking water supplies.
In the U.S., about 131 million tons of coal ash are produced each year by coal-fired power plants.
Since coal contains levels of arsenic, chromium and mercury — among other things — it cannot be dumped or stored where rainwater can leach the metals and move them to aquifers.
In most cases, when large quantities of coal ash are stored, it's stored wet to prevent dust. The result is coal ash ponds, which are susceptible to breaching and leaking into other water supplies.
Supporters of the bill say that it would preserve jobs and would save the U.S. between $1.7 billion and $5 billion per year over 20 years, according to research by the Edison Electric Institute in Washington.
"This bipartisan legislation empowers states, and just as importantly, it helps to preserve and create jobs that our nation so badly needs," Hoeven said in a news release last month about the bill.
If the bill were not to pass in the Senate, supporters say that it would cost the coal industry more than $110 billion over two decades.
Sen. Dan Coats, R-Ind., supports the bill.
"The EPA's narrow ideological agenda is negatively impacting Hoosier families and businesses," he said in a news release. "More harmful federal rules will not create jobs, bring down energy prices or encourage American energy production."
In Indiana, the coal industry provides 3,083 jobs.
"Hoosier employees are asking Washington to loosen the grasp of government regulation," Coats said. "As the president travels across the country selling his own jobs plan, his administration continues to impose regulations that eliminate American jobs."
Those opposed to the bill say that without coal combustion regulation, there is a severe risk of harmful pollutants reaching drinking water supplies.
"Coal ash ponds are threatening hundreds of communities and their drinking water supplies," said Lisa Evans, a lawyer for the activist group Earthjustice. "The current approach in Congress is to ignore the problem and hope it goes away."
The EPA recently completed a survey of the water sources that run the risk of having a disaster like those in Wisconsin and Tennessee.
According to their findings, three Indianapolis-area power stations are at high-risk for an incident similar to Oak Creek.
Eagle Valley Generating Station had one high-hazard pond, while Harding Street Power Station had two high-hazard ponds, according to a study by the EPA.
"For every day this House has been in session, there has been a vote to curtail EPA protections. That is absolutely unconscionable," Evans said. "Too many Americans live near toxic coal ash dumps and unless federal action is taken soon, another TVA disaster is just waiting to happen.
"We shouldn't have to wait for more destruction or loss of life to act."
Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., has not yet made a public comment regarding the bill.
At this time, representatives from EPA's Region 5, which includes Indiana, declined to comment.
"It's not appropriate to comment on pending legislation at this time," an EPA representative said.
It is likely that the Senate will vote on the bill by the end of November.