The U.S. House of Representatives on July 23 passed by a 258–166 vote a coal ash bill that industry and states say is much-needed, but which the White House has threatened to veto. 

The Improving Coal Combustion Residuals Regulation Act of 2015 (H.R. 1734) sponsored by Rep. David McKinley (R-W.Va.) seeks to implement standards finalized last year by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) via coal ash permit systems to be set up by the states. “States that choose to implement a permit program must include all of the requirements for a permit program as laid out in the legislation, and states may choose to make their permit programs even more protective than the minimum federal requirements,” says a brief of the bill.

H.R. 1734 also holds that states must comply with certain requirements from the EPA final rule or “do something more stringent,” including those governing design requirements, post-closure, fugitive dust control plans, record-keeping, run-on/run-off controls, Hydrologic and hydraulic capacity requirements, and inspections. “EPA will have the ability to review a state permit program at any time to ensure that the permit program meets the minimum statutory requirements.”

The bill also codifies the designation of coal combustion residuals (CCRs) as non-hazardous and prevents the EPA from reconsidering whether CCRs are non-hazardous every three years as stipulated in the rule.

On July 17, Senators John Hoeven (R-N.D.) and Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) introduced a companion bill in the Senate. 

The EPA’s final rule, which was signed on Dec. 19, 2014, will become effective on Oct. 14, 2015. When promulgated, industry lauded the agency for the rule’s classification of CCRs as non-hazardous waste under Subtitle D of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). Some Republicans have criticized the EPA’s rule as a minimum “one-size-fits all standards” for the management and disposal of coal ash in landfills and surface impoundments.

States, on the other hand, have complained that the RCRA’s structure complicates the rule. Many have urged lawmakers to pass coal ash legislation to resolve complications related to state permitting programs that conflict with the federal program, and to provide certainty—especially because a rash of citizen suits are certain to follow publication of the final rule.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration on July 21 threatened to veto the legislation even if approved by both houses. The White House said that while it supports “appropriate State program flexibility,” the bill would weaken the final EPA rule because it would allow states “to implement permit programs that would not meet a national minimum standard of protection.”

For the power sector, the bill offers certainty. In a statement on July 22, National Rural Electric Cooperative Association CEO Jo Ann Emerson said the House bill “offers a predictable business environment for the safe and effective reuse of materials that can help strengthen our national roadways and other infrastructure.”

Sonal Patel, associate editor (@POWERmagazine, @sonalcpatel)