Washington, DC — The Office of Inspector General for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has opened an investigation into the agency’s “partnership” with the coal industry to market coal ash and other combustion wastes in consumer, agricultural and industrial products, according to a report issued this week. The action underlines concerns raised by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) that EPA has been promoting the massive re-use of toxic coal ash without understanding the long-term public health or environmental consequences.
The EPA Office of Inspector General (OIG) report, released on November 2, 2009, addresses why the agency did not release a 2002 analysis on the cancer risk from exposure to coal ash until this March. The agency still has not released a 2005 “sensitivity analysis” on the same topic. While the report concluded that the OIG could find no “evidence of any effort to improperly suppress the release of scientific information during the rulemaking process” it did recommend a new probe of why EPA was promoting coal ash prior to determining whether these commercial applications were prudent or safe:
“We identified a potential issue related to EPA’s promotion of beneficial use through its Coal Combustion Product Partnership and have referred the question how EPA established a reasonable determination for these endorsements to the appropriate OIG office for evaluation.”
This OIG investigation arose from an October 4th piece by CBS’s “60 Minutes” in which EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson admitted that her agency had no studies indicating that coal ash re-use was safe: “I don't know. I have no data that says that's safe at this point.” The OIG also found that EPA began its formal partnership with the coal industry and the American Coal Ash Association to push commercial re-use of coal ash during a period (2003-6) in which the agency’s scientific reviews of potential health and environmental effects had been suspended.
EPA Administrator Jackson has pledged to determine whether coal ash should be classified as a hazardous waste by the end of this year but agency insiders report efforts to exempt any re-use of coal ash on the grounds that it is a product and not a waste.
“I fear that EPA will say that coal ash is hazardous in a sludge pond but is perfectly okay in your living room carpet, nursery wallboard or kitchen counter,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch. “EPA is supposed to be a regulatory agency and, as such, should not be in a ‘product partnership’ with the very industries that it purports to regulate.”
EPA claims credit for “beneficial” re-use of nearly half of all the coal combustion wastes created – some 125 million tons – each year in the U.S. In turn, this marketing effort generates between $11 and $13 billion each year for the industry, but industry derives immensely greater economic benefit by avoiding costs it would face if coal ash and the other combustion by-products were treated as hazardous waste.