Environment

President Obama signs water projects bill into law; includes provisions for coal ash

States can now develop their own coal ash disposal rules, as long as they are at least as stringent as federal ones. President Obama signed the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act of 2016 on Dec. 16.

As NCPW reported in September, states could establish their own technical standards, even if they deviate from federal ones, as long as protections were ultimately the same or better. These protections could apply to structural landfills and the use of fly ash, for example, in producing concrete.

Southeast Energy News recently published a good explainer of the law, including caveats from the environmental community.

One of the caveats is the relative laxity of the EPA rules. For example, coal ash is considered solid waste, instead of hazardous waste, and is subject to less stringent disposal requirements. By classifying coal ash as non-hazardous — even though its components are toxic — the EPA has armed utilities such as Duke Energy with a valuable, if misleading talking point that the waste is non-hazardous.

However, the law does the EPA enforcement authority over utilities in states that choose not to establish their own permit programs. The EPA administrator could also revoke a state permit if it fails to protect human health and the environment.

This law and its enforcement are both subject in part to the political vicissitudes of the incoming Trump administration. Trump is vehemently anti-regulatory; his nominee to lead the EPA, Scott Pruitt is a defender of fossil fuels and a climate change denier.

As attorney general of Oklahoma, Pruitt sued the EPA over the proposed Clean Power Plan that would have more stringently regulated coal-fired power plant emissions. (NC DEQ Secretary Donald van der Vaart, who recently interviewed for a post in the Trump administration, joined Pruitt and several other coal-friendly states in the lawsuit.)

The Senate passed the bill in September, 95-3. North Carolina senators Richard Burr and Thom Tillis voted yes. On Dec. 8, the House approved the bill, 360-61. Walter Jones Jr., a Republican representing several coastal counties in the  Third Congressional District, was North Carolina’s sole no vote.

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