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House forwards legislation loosening coal waste-burning rules

The House will debate legislation on Tuesday that relaxes EPA emissions requirements for plants that burn the waste left over from coal mining.

The House rules committee sent the Satisfying Energy Needs and Saving the Environment, or SENSE, act to the floor on a party line 6-4 vote Monday. SENSE would modify EPA rules to allow for higher emissions of sulfur dioxide specifically for plants that burn so-called “refuse coal” -- the castoffs from coal mining that previously could not be used.

The legislation is sponsored by Rep. Keith Rothfus, whose district sits in the heart of a state facing piles of aging coal castoff material that, if left in place, has been shown to contaminate area water tables with acids and heavy metals. George Ellis, executive director of ARIPPA, a lobby group that represents coal-burning plants, says roughly 5,000 of these piles are found throughout Pennsylvania.

“These are (a) legacy of mining a long time ago, when there was no regulation, so they take the waste coal out,” Ellis told AMI Newswire. “There were no regulations to do anything with the mounds of coal waste.”

As a result, operators of the plants have come to see the low-capacity plants, which often generate less than 10 percent of a regular coal-burning plant, as a solution for removing the waste piles at no cost to the state.

“We’re really kind of an environmental remediation firm that happens to make electricity to pay for it,” Vince Brisini, director of environmental affairs for Olympus Power LLC, owner of the Westwood Generation Plant, which burns waste coal.

Brisini testified before the House energy committee in support of the legislation, which would also allow the plants to meet mercury emission requirements by, alternatively, further reducing the sulfur dioxide emissions. Brisini noted that, because the bituminous waste is lower in mercury, it is more costly for companies to reduce those levels by the percentage amounts that the EPA calls for. In spite of this, he said, most of the plants in western Pennsylvania achieve roughly 90 percent removal with current technology.

The Obama administration issued a veto threat for the legislation in a statement released immediately following the vote. The statement said the bill creates an “uneven playing field” in the EPA's new cross-state air pollution rules, which call on roughly 28 states to reduce emission of sulfur dioxide. To accomplish these reduction goals, the Cross State Air Pollution Rule CSAPR allows for states to trade emissions credits within and between states.

“This market-based approach reduces the cost of compliance while ensuring reductions in air pollution for citizens across the CSAPR region,” said the statement from the president’s Office of Management and Budget. “[The SENSE Act] establishes a special market of CSAPR allowances for EGUs [Energy Generating Units]  that burn coal refuse and prohibits the trading of allowances allocated to coal refuse EGUs, which would interfere with and manipulate market conditions.”

The legislation will be debated along with seven amendments submitted by Democrats, including one, offered by Rep. John Pallone (D-N.J.) that strikes the CSAPR changes entirely.

Rothfus said the amendment “weakens” the bill and he would oppose any amendments that do so.

Brisini said passage of the SENSE act would help keep open refuse-burning plants that particularly specialize in bituminous coal, which is higher in the sulfur dioxide that the EPA seeks to control as part of its latest rules. He argued that technologies needed to bring these more harmful coals are cost-prohibitive.

As an alternative to burning the waste coal, some states have opted to create coal ash pits. The pits have to be lined in order to prevent the leaching of chemicals such as iron, manganese or mercury.

Rothfus, in a release last August, said the cost of getting rid of the coal and reclaiming the mine sites in Pennsylvania alone were over $18 billion. By contrast, he argued, burning the piles allow for a zero-cost disposal.

Ellis told AMI that although five of Pennsylvania’s 14 refuse-burning plants burn the less problematic anthracite waste, roughly half of the existing waste in the state is the bituminous kind.

Both the rules and energy committees forwarded the legislation on a Republican-led partisan vote. Ellis said, in spite of this, he’s “optimistic” that the law will pass.

“I think there’s a knee-jerk reaction to anything right now related to coal or fuel,” Ellis said. “Politically, there seems to be a divide on that issue.”