MORGANTOWN, W.Va. (AP) - For two years, one of the two professional engineers in Congress has pushed a bill to let states regulate fly ash from coal-fired power plants, a move U.S. Rep. David McKinley says would benefit coal and power companies and the construction industry he's worked in since the 1960s.
Each time, the West Virginia Republican's bill clears the House, only to die in the Senate.
But McKinley says this year is different: The latest version of the Coal Residuals Reuse and Management Act (H.R. 2218) was crafted with input from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which McKinley said is "not opposing" the draft that cleared a House subcommittee Thursday.
"We've listened and reacted," he said, "and we've listened again."
EPA officials told The Associated Press they can't comment on pending legislation.
But at a House subcommittee hearing in April, an official in the Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response said the agency supports "the development, implementation and enforcement of appropriate standards for facilities managing coal ash, while encouraging the beneficial use of this economically important material."
Coal ash is used in materials ranging from concrete and drywall to countertops and bowling balls.
The U.S. produces about 140 million tons of fly ash a year, and EPA calls "coal combustion residuals" one of the nation's largest waste streams. It says about 34 percent is landfilled every year, while another 21 percent is dumped in impoundments. About 37 percent is "beneficially used," and about 8 percent is used in coal mine reclamation projects.
Though coal ash contains arsenic, selenium, lead, cadmium, and mercury, it's not considered hazardous waste.
Environmental activists worry about water contamination nonetheless. And they see little improvement in the latest bill.
"Its primary effect remains keeping the EPA from regulating this massive toxic waste stream," said the West Virginia Sierra Club's Jim Sconyers, who questions the ability of states to properly monitor the waste and protect citizens and the environment.
"McKinley is at least consistent," Sconyers said. "He continues to act to protect the profits of the coal and electric power industry, and not the health and safety of his constituents."
McKinley's northern West Virginia district is home to millions of tons of coal ash dumped in strip mines and waste ponds, and his office in a Morgantown retail center sits in the shadow of a power plant. He says encouraging the recycling of coal ash just makes sense.
McKinley says some states have no solid waste programs to dispose of coal ash, and the need to get rid of it won't disappear.
State regulators are already "handling other products that are far more hazardous than this product," he adds, pointing to chemicals, batteries and other "far more difficult issues" for landfills. McKinley contends they're more prepared to regulate coal ash than the EPA, which proposed doing so in 2010 but has yet to act.
"This is a product that has already been deemed recyclable," McKinley told reporters in a conference call this week. "We have to remove the stigma."
EPA says some elements in coal ash "can pose threats to public health and the environment, if improperly managed."
At the April hearing, the agency cited dozens of cases in which coal ash had potentially damaged groundwater and surface water supplies, mainly from unlined and unmonitored waste pits.
Legislation must include such things as timelines for the implementation of state programs and criteria for EPA to determine when a state program is deficient, the EPA said. It also must contain rules for waste pits, including deadlines for closing those that are leaking or abandoned.
McKinley's bill has a good chance of passing the Republican-controlled House again, but its prospects in the Democrat-controlled Senate are unclear.
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., has sponsored Senate versions of the legislation and said Thursday he will support it again because it's "a common-sense way to protect good-paying jobs and our environment."
But Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., said people are understandably worried about safety.
"That tells me we need to find a way to do this cleaner and more carefully," he said.
"We need a solution that works for both local communities and industry, protects public health and the environment, and enables the government to act quickly if a dangerous situation arises," he said in an email. "I'm hopeful that we can work together on a real bill to address these needs."