Naked City

EPA Faulted on Two Fronts

A coalition of environmental groups – including 14 in Texas – filed a petition last month demanding that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency stop the dumping of waste from coal-fired power plants into unlined mining pits and waste lagoons until the agency adopts federally enforceable regulations to prevent contamination of groundwater and surface water.

The primary filers of the petition included the Sierra Club, Denver-based Citizens Coal Council, consumer advocacy group Public Citizen's Texas office, and the Indianapolis-based Hoosier Environmental Council. One of the petitioners was Neighbors for Neighbors, the group of Bastrop and Lee Co. residents opposing the strip-mining plans of the Alcoa facility in Rockdale, about 60 miles northeast of Austin. "For decades, Alcoa and TXU have been dumping hundreds of thousands of tons of coal waste each year into these mine pits," said Martha Boethel, president of Neighbors for Neighbors. "We fear it's only a matter of time before we start seeing groundwater contamination in our area as a result." The group claims that samples of coal-waste deposits at the Rockdale facility showed high levels of thallium and also detected dioxin and furan.

But Alcoa spokesman Jim Hodson responded, in the weekly Rockdale Reporter, that "the thallium data they refer to was a laboratory error, proven in a hearing and verified as nondetectable in subsequent sampling. ... Where Alcoa has placed coal combustion products as landfill, no surface water or groundwater contamination has been documented."

In related news, the General Accounting Office – the investigative arm of Congress – issued a report last month on the Bush administration's revisions to the New Source Review program, and the report is not favorable to the Bushites. NSR refers to the Clean Air Act regulations requiring industrial facilities to install the best pollution-control technology available when they make substantial upgrades to equipment. Alcoa agreed to a $4 million settlement last year for violating these provisions at the Rockdale facility. But in 2002 and 2003, the Bush EPA changed NSR rules to give companies more flexibility to modernize without triggering NSR requirements. Enviro groups warned this would allow greater air pollution; the EPA insisted the flexibility would decrease it.

In the GAO report, key stakeholders – including state and local regulators responsible for implementing the rules, environmental and health activists, and industry reps – were asked to predict what effect the changes would have. While the responses of industry (loves the changes) and enviros (hate them) were predictable, the X factor was the regulators, often accused of being tyrants by big business and industry lapdogs by activists. This time, the regulators generally came down on the green side – of 44 major officials surveyed, more than half (27) felt the rule would increase emissions and hinder efforts to meet health-based air quality standards. A majority also felt that the changes would increase their agencies' workloads at a time when most states are strapped for cash and would do little to resolve uncertainty about when NSR triggers should kick in.

"Little data currently exist to resolve these competing viewpoints," the report concluded. The GAO had three recommendations for the EPA: Help state air quality agencies implement the revisions, monitor the effects of the rule with hard data, and consider stakeholders' concerns before any further rule changes. The EPA quibbled with the report's methodology and certain findings, but in general said it agreed with the recommendations and would implement them.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, coal-fired power plants, coal waste, Alcoa, Rockdale, Neighbors for Neighbors, toxic emissions, New Source Review, NSR

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