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 health.

"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 construction materials.

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 opinion.

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.