James Kotcon: Coal Ash Amendment Friendly Only to Polluters

Charleston Gazette
5 July 2012

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Aaron Gillispie, director of the Materials Control, Soils and Testing Division for the state Department of Transportation, made some serious errors in his commentary on coal ash (June 25).

It is certainly true that we need to repair and replace aging highways and bridges. It is also true that using coal ash in an environmentally responsible way can provide an economical substitute for concrete, while reducing the greenhouse gas emissions. And it is certainly true, as Gillispie stated, that using coal ash in road paving is better than letting it seep into our streams and rivers.

Where Gillispie erred is in the illogical leap in asserting that a recent House amendment to the pending federal transportation bill "provides sensible environmental safeguards" for coal ash.

The House amendment actually prohibits the EPA from regulating coal ash impoundments. The EPA's proposed rules apply to coal ash disposal in landfills and impoundments, like the one that broke open and flooded homes along the Clinch River in Tennessee in December 2008, or the one that gave way into Lake Michigan earlier this year. The rules specifically exempt beneficial uses of coal ash.

Much of the coal ash in West Virginia is dumped into landfills or impoundments with inadequate monitoring or environmental protections. A number of the coal ash landfills in West Virginia are rated as hazardous because of the potential for loss of life. Worse, many are leaking arsenic, lead or high levels of other pollutants. But the House amendment would prohibit adoption of needed rules to protect our water and our neighborhoods.

Worst of all, contrary to Gillispie's assertions, the House amendment will actually hurt recycling and beneficial uses such as in highways by encouraging the continued use of these impoundments. A Tufts University study found that a strong coal ash rule would create 28,000 jobs. But dumping the ash into unlined fills where it comes into contact with water ruins billions of tons each year, preventing reuse while exposing the people downstream to the leaching of these toxins.

And therein lies the real reason for the House amendment to the transportation bill. That amendment is nothing more than an effort to shield coal companies and utility profits by giving them an unprecedented ability to pollute with impunity. Under the House amendment, coal ash would be less regulated than the household garbage you set out on the curb, even though the health risks from coal ash include cancer, neurological disorders, asthma and birth defects.

Claims that this encourages recycling are nothing more than green-washing, a smokescreen to use the word "recycling" while the real intent is to protect polluting industries and the politicians who get their campaign contributions.

Gillispie is wrong. Senators Rockefeller and Manchin need to insist on a clean transportation bill, one that funds needed transportation without unwise polluter-friendly amendments.

Kotcon is chairman of the Energy Committee for the West Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club.