Legislators call for public hearing on coal ash disposal

State regulators should hold public hearings and conduct research to decide whether changes are needed in how Iowa regulates coal ash disposal, the chairmen of the state House and Senate environmental committees said in interviews with the Iowa Independent.

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State Sen. Dennis Black, D-Grinnell, and state Rep. Donovan Olson, D-Boone, said there are big enough concerns regarding disposal of the toxic byproduct of burning coal to warrant the Environmental Protection Commission (EPC), an arm of the state’s Department of Natural Resources that provides policy oversight, to conduct public hearings to see if tougher regulations are needed.

“A public hearing process would allow us to look at all our options and make an informed decision,” Olson said. “I think this is the obvious step.”

Last year, the state DNR began drafting tougher rules on coal ash disposal, in particular, disposal at unlined former quarries and mines that received a waiver from the state allowing them to use ash as fill. Environmental groups say this type of disposal method poses an enormous risk to public health. Without liners, toxins such as mercury, zinc, lead, arsenic and selenium could leach out of the site and into groundwater supplies, and without monitoring equipment, there is no way of knowing if contamination is already taking place.

The process stalled, however, because of pressure applied by disposal-site owners and coal-burning businesses. The EPC vowed to continue investigating the need for tougher regulations, but in March the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said it would redraft federal regulations for coal ash disposal, effectively halting any action on coal ash at the state level.

Officials with the DNR said it will wait and see what the EPA comes up with before considering changing rules in Iowa.

Olson said even if the federal government is looking into coal ash regulations, the state should still conduct public hearings and investigate possible rule changes or legislation regarding coal ash.

“The issues we face generally are the same as other states, but because of our topography and other factors we face different challenges,” he said. “We need to design our own regulations. The EPC has a public hearing process and I think what they come up with would give us good direction as to where we should go as far as legislation that would make sense.”

Black agreed, saying any federal rule-making process could get bogged down by lobbyists and end up producing regulations that do not “protect the public water supply.”

Olson said his personal preference would be to mandate some sort of liner at each of the sites, but he would like to see the issue studied to ensure the state is protecting its citizens without causing undue harm to the business community.

“I’m hoping we see some sort of direction on that issue from the EPC, some sort of modification to the current rules to protect the environment and public health going forward,” he said.

While the legislature generally does not interfere with the EPC’s rule-making process, Black said if no action were taken, legislators could conduct hearings themselves.

“The legislature makes the law,” he said. “We can bypass EPC. Generally if they are in the rule-making process we do not interfere with creating a law. If there is no rule making underway, anyone can introduce a bill to make it happen.”

In that scenario, the Legislative Council, a bipartisan group of Senate and House leaders that serves as a steering committee for the General Assembly when it is not in session, could appoint a committee to look into the issue. It would have the authority to hold meetings, call for testimony and direct the DNR or EPC staff to undertake the essential research, Black said.

Black, who has professional experience as a natural resource analyst and consultant, said he is surprised that the issue has not already been brought before his legislative committee.

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