(Remarks as prepared for delivery)
Today I want to provide an important update on our ongoing investigation into the management of coal ash waste throughout the country and the potential threat this waste poses to our communities.
At 1:00 a.m. on December 22, 2008, a retaining wall failed on an 84-acre surface impoundment holding a half century's worth of coal ash at the Tennessee Valley Authority's Kingston coal-fired power plant.
More than one billion gallons of coal combustion waste rushed down the valley like a wave, covering more than 300 acres. The volume of ash and water was 100 times greater than the amount of oil spilled in the Exxon Valdez disaster. The cost of cleaning up that spill has been estimated at over a billion dollars.
After the devastating Kingston spill, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee immediately held an oversight hearing to better understand this incident and how to avoid similar disasters in the future.
When EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson came before our Committee for her confirmation hearing a week later, she committed to move immediately to address the threat posed by coal ash waste.
I want to commend EPA today for its quick action.
We know EPA has collected a substantial amount of information on coal combustion waste sites nationwide. We also understand the Agency has identified several hundred coal ash piles across the country.
To date, they have identified 44 sites that pose a "high hazard."
A "high hazard" rating means that they are located in such a way that if these coal ash ponds were to fail, they would pose a threat to the people living nearby.
I asked EPA to immediately follow up on these 44 sites and to ensure that the public is protected.
This week, EPA began to notify local officials, including first responders, about the "high hazard" sites.
I also want to commend EPA for deploying teams on the ground to determine whether there is an imminent danger to the public at any of these sites. I understand that this inspection work has also begun during the past few weeks.
However, I am concerned that the EPA, after consulting with the Army Corps of Engineers and the Department of Homeland Security, has indicated that they cannot make the list of "high hazard" sites public.
We are pursuing whether the handling of these sites is consistent with the handling of other similar facilities, because of the critical importance of the public's right to know about threats in their communities. If these sites are so hazardous and if the neighborhoods nearby could be harmed irreparably, then I believe it is essential to let people know.
In that way, they can press their local authorities who have responsibility for their safety to act now to make the sites safer.
Today, I am sending a letter to the Department of Homeland Security, the Army Corps of Engineers, and the EPA to ask for further information on whether the public disclosure of coal ash waste sites is consistent with the treatment of other hazardous sites.
One of the lessons we all learned from the TVA spill is that a close look at these facilities is extremely important, and we cannot rely on general assurances that these sites are safe. That is why I am pleased that on-the-ground inspections have begun.
This Committee will continue its ongoing investigation of this matter, and as part of our oversight, I plan to conduct additional hearings on these sites.
Coal combustion waste is subject to very limited regulation - in fact, there are stronger protections for household garbage than for coal ash across the country.
EPA has the authority to regulate coal ash, and I know they understand the need to move quickly to finally regulate these sites, which can contain dangerous toxins, including arsenic, selenium, lead, cadmium and chromium, among others.
I have great confidence in Administrator Jackson's commitment to do just that in an expeditious manner.
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