Rockefeller Giving Weight to Health Concerns Over Coal Ash
The State Journal
27 April 2012
By Pam Kasey
In seeking to decouple coal ash regulations from a major
transportation bill April 26, Sen. Jay Rockefeller gave weight to
voters' concerns about a connection between coal ash and public
"We have all heard from our constituents about water contamination
and health impacts, and those concerns still need to be
addressed," the West Virginia Democrat said in an e-mail to The State Journal.
Rockefeller's comments came on the formation of a conference
committee to reconcile Senate and House transportation bills.
The Republican-controlled House ignored a transportation bill from
the Democratic-led Senate and instead created its own.
On April 18, the House added as an amendment to its bill a stalled
bill from Rep. David McKinley, R-W.Va. that would prevent the U.S.
Environmental Protection Agency regulating coal ash as hazardous
waste, instead reserving regulation of its disposal to the states.
McKinley said at the time that the amendment would help keep
transportation construction costs down by supporting the continued
re-use of coal combustion residuals as structural fill and in
And he issued a challenge, saying the chance to save jobs and
construction costs was now in the hands of the Senate.
The amendment was fully supported by West Virginia's bipartisan
delegation in the House, and McKinley had good reason to believe
the state's senators would support it as well. Rockefeller and
West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin signed on as co-sponsors
to a very similar coal ash bill last fall.
He was disappointed — "shocked," actually — when Rockefeller told
Politico April 26 that the amendment was "going down."
""I don't understand that from a man who once was quoted as
saying, 'Coal defines us,'" McKinley said in a prepared response
to Rockefeller released to the media.
Rockefeller spoke testily about the House's amendment.
"My priority is enacting into law a transportation bill that
creates jobs, builds highways and bridges, and keeps people safe
when they drive," said Rockefeller, who chairs the Senate
Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. "Adding coal
ash or other environmental bills to that mix is a deal breaker on
the conference committee. That's a fact, not an opinion, and both
sides know it."
He emphasized his disagreement with McKinley over the importance
of the coal ash amendment to the transportation bill: "West
Virginia suffers if we push unrelated issues that are guaranteed
to bring down the highway bill."
Rockefeller said he has worked on the coal ash issue for more than
a decade to find the right balance for beneficial re-use of coal
ash, and more recently with Congressman McKinley, who has made it
a primary issue since his election in 2010.
"I always made it clear that I believed the legislation would need
to be improved before it could pass the Senate and be signed into
law," he said.
The State Journal asked Rockefeller for clarification of comments
he made to Politico that seemed to connect his unexpected
opposition to the amendment to what he called a "very
environmental" or "pro-health" voting record over the past year.
He also told Politico there had been an "evolution" of his
He responded only that constituents' concerns about water
contamination and health impacts need to be addressed.
As Rockefeller and McKinley sparred over coal ash, Physicians for
Social Responsibility delivered to President Obama a petition
signed by 840 health professionals outlining the risks to humans
of exposure to coal ash.
"The hazards to health from exposure to these coal ash
contaminants – typically including arsenic, lead, mercury,
cadmium, chromium and selenium – are grave," the letter to the
president reads, listing developmental delays, behavioral
problems, neurological disorders, kidney and lung disease and a
variety of cancers.
In their letter, the health professionals called on the
administration to release health-protective, enforceable national
standards for the disposal of coal combustion residuals this year.
The EPA has for two years been weighing its two options for
regulating coal ash disposal: as household garbage, with
regulation by the states, or as hazardous waste with strong
federal oversight. Observers doubt the agency will issue rules
before the November election.