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To regulate or make ‘best-practice suggestions’

A reader’s letter expressed opposition to efforts in Congress to phase out the 125-year-old incandescent light bulb during the next four to 12 years.
One objection to the measure – already implemented by a number of other countries – concerned the presence of mercury in the compact fluorescent lights which may replace the incandescent bulbs.
Mercury, a hazardous substance causing contamination of air, water and food sources such as fish – or should a CF bulb break releasing the mercury in a home – is highly poisonous to humans.
Mercury and some dozen other toxic chemicals and metals are among pollutants found in coal ash sludge, such as that spilled from the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Kingston fossil plant nearly two years ago. Even through absent containment rupture and major spills, the poisons can leach out. They have been found in ground or surface water or in soils surrounding ash impoundments at more than 100 sites, including five in Tennessee.
An October 2010 “State of Coal Ash Regulation” report by the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy notes the Environmental Protection Agency’s categorization of two other TVA wet-ash impoundments as “high hazard” ponds, meaning that accidents involving them “could cause life-threatening disasters.”
In 2002, the EPA concluded that coal ash impoundments create a one in 50 chance of cancer for nearby residents and heightened risk of lung, kidney, liver and several other non-cancer diseases.
But for special exemptions written into the law, one would agree with the assessment by SACE, coal ash with its mercury and other dangerous chemicals would long have been listed as hazardous waste.
In June, the Agency published a Proposed Rule for Coal-Combustion-Residuals, on which it is seeking public input through Nov. 19. Comments may be sent via e-mail to Administrator Jackson at [email protected], with EPA-HQ-RCRA-2009-640 in the subject line.
The EPA proposal states two options for governing coal ash. One would utilize the hazardous waste mechanism of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act law to create robust standards for the life cycle of the material.
These would include the requirement of permits for generating, processing, transport or disposal of coal ash, and such safety and oversight matters as liners for ponds and landfills, structural stability standards, emergency-response and financial-assurance plans. There would be a federal oversight authority to inspect sites for compliance and to enforce regulations.
The second option has no federally mandated standards or enforceable regulation. Instead, coal ash would be treated like ordinary household waste. This option would put in place best-practice “suggestions” and advisory guidelines, these lacking federal authority to assure they are adhered to.
The environmental and public-health dangers of unregulated coal ash, and the high economic toll when standards are lax and accidents result, argue for real change in the approach to its management. The EPA should scrap the suggestions-only approach and institute management of this material, as the highly hazardous waste it is, under Subtitle C of the law.