(Remarks as prepared for delivery)
Today's hearing will examine the EPA's first ever national standards for the disposal of coal ash. I strongly believe that the EPA rule must be given a chance to work.
While I would have preferred that EPA issue a stronger rule -- designating coal ash as "hazardous waste" -- EPA's new rule is an important step toward addressing the dangers of coal ash.
I am dismayed that there is legislation moving through the House that attempts to weaken this rule even further.
Coal ash is so dangerous because it contains many toxins, such as mercury, arsenic, and lead. These toxic materials are known to cause cancer and harm children's development, including brain development.
Coal ash is often stored in impoundments that are unlined and located adjacent to rivers and lakes, where the toxic substances leach into the groundwater and surface waters. In the worst case scenario, these impoundments can break, spreading toxic waste throughout communities.
It is hard to believe that it has been more than six years since the devastating spill at the Tennessee Valley Authority's coal ash pond in Kingston, Tennessee. At 1:00 AM on Monday, December 22, 2008, an earthen wall failed on a 40-acre surface impoundment holding coal ash. More than one billion gallons of waste rushed down the valley like an avalanche, covering more than 300 acres, destroying and damaging homes, and polluting the Emory River. The volume of ash and water was nearly 100 times greater than the amount of oil spilled in the Exxon Valdez disaster.
In January 2009, I chaired an EPW Committee hearing on the TVA coal ash spill to explore how the spill happened and how we can prevent events like this from happening again. TVA has spent over a billion dollars cleaning up this spill and has made the business decision to convert all of its facilities from wet to dry handling of coal ash. TVA took this responsible step to protect communities from future spills, and I commend TVA for its actions.
In the wake of the TVA coal ash spill, I called on EPA to assess the hazards associated with coal ash ponds around the country. EPA identified 44 coal ash ponds in 10 states that present a "high hazard" - meaning that if the pond were to fail, it would pose a threat to human life. EPA required facilities to submit corrective action plans for those ponds that were found to pose a serious risk of failure. Unfortunately, EPA relied solely on the states and the utilities to follow through with the corrective action plans, which was clearly not enough.
Duke Energy's Dan River facility in North Carolina is one example of a company not following through on a corrective action plan.
Duke Energy agreed in its corrective action plan to monitor a metal stormwater pipe for signs of potential failure. In February 2014, that very same pipe rusted out and failed, spilling toxic coal ash into the Dan River, a source of drinking water for communities in North Carolina and Virginia.
Since the spill, Duke Energy has pled guilty to criminal charges involving its coal ash ponds. A criminal investigation of the North Carolina state agency charged with protecting public health and the environment is ongoing.
The EPA rule will provide critical public health protections, including groundwater monitoring, cleanup requirements, transparency, and preservation of each citizen's right to protect their community from coal ash pollution.
For the first time, utilities will have to test the groundwater surrounding their coal ash ponds and post that information online. This will allow citizens to know what is in their water and help prevent pregnant women and children from drinking groundwater that is contaminated with toxins.
While I strongly believe EPA should have done more to address the dangers of coal ash, EPA's rule will go a long way to protecting people from toxic coal ash in the future.
Legislation being considered in the House of Representatives would delay many of the rule's new health and safety protections, including the rule's mandate to close inactive coal ash ponds. It would also eliminate public access to information about coal ash ponds and remove the rule's national minimum standard for protection of health and the environment, allowing state programs to eliminate critical safety requirements.
It is important that this new rule not be diluted by Congress. EPA should be allowed to move forward with critical new protections for the safety of our communities.