Perhaps the most accurate statement regarding the 2015 Government Spending Bill came from Sen. John McCain, who was quoted saying "it's jammed full of sh--." The "cromnibus" bill appropriates $1.01 trillion, and will keep most government offices in operation through September. Though House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers called the bill "a win for Kentucky," it depends on how you look at it. Personally, the bill makes me uneasy. Here's why:
The new spending bill cuts the EPA's budget by $60 million, which means that the agency must reduce staffing to its lowest numbers since 1989. Rogers claims the budget is necessary to "rein in" government "overreach." However, despite accusations that the agency "kills jobs," we must not forget that the EPA's primary responsibility and deeply important mission is to protect human life.
In fact, the most hated regulations of pro-coal policy makers are the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS) and the new Carbon Pollution (111d) Standards. Both take measures to protect human health from the hazardous emissions of coal-fired power plants: the nation's largest single source of mercury, carbon and a slew of other toxic pollutants that have been linked to cancer, kidney failure, respiratory disease, central nervous system damage and even premature death. A 2014 report from the Center for Effective Government found that the MATS rule could "prevent between 4,200 and 11,000 adult deaths, 20 infant deaths, 2,800 cases of chronic bronchitis, 4,700 heart attacks, more than 2,600 hospital admissions for lung and heart disease, 3,100 emergency room visits by children with asthma, and 130,000 asthma attacks in children each year, among other health benefits." Similarly, a Harvard University study suggested that the new Carbon Pollution Standards could have a variety of health benefits, including preventing up to 3,500 premature deaths.
Not surprisingly, the spending bill rejected President Obama's request for $66 million to expand programs to protect our health from the harmful effects of air and water pollution, and to hire federal regulators to oversee state regulatory programs.
It would be one thing if Kentucky had a glowing track record for upholding environmental regulations. However, our state's regulatory bodies have been systematically underfunded, and worse, embroiled in scandal. Most recently (and most embarrassingly), state Rep. Keith Hall, a strip mine operator who was also chair of the House Tourism, Development and Energy Committee and was a vice chairman of the Natural Resources and Environment Committee, was charged for bribing a mine inspector to ignore a host of violations at Hall's mining operations. The list of egregious violations included ignoring property lines, ignoring blasting laws, letting fly-rock destroy property and homes, and polluting local waterways. Given Kentucky's track record, would a stronger, more accountable federal-state regulatory partnership be such a bad idea?
The bill is also bad news for clean water. Remember when the Bush administration renamed toxic mining waste to "fill material" so that coal companies could bypass the Clean Water Act? One rider in 2015's budget prevents the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers from changing the name of "fill material" to mining waste, meaning that toxic byproducts of mountaintop removal mining will continue to legally contaminate Appalachian streams in 2015.
The budget bill also ensures the continuation of coal production at home and abroad in 2015. Obama's request for funding for renewables was cut by 16 percent, and yet the bill allotted 20 percent more than the amount requested for fossil fuels exploration (yes — 571 million of our tax dollars will be subsidizing highly profitable fossil fuel industries this year). Finally, though in 2013 President Obama promised that he would prohibit funding for the construction of new coal-fired power plants overseas, a rider in the 2015 spending bill prohibits any such funding limitations.
To be fair, the bill does appropriate $10 million to the US Economic Development Administration to help distressed coal mining communities. Ninety million will fund the Appalachian Regional Commission and another $10 million will support broadband initiatives in central Appalachian counties. However, the new budget also cuts funding for the Community Block Grant Programs, and allows big corporations to cut pension payments for over a million retirees, making the bill's overall benefit for Appalachia questionable.
Is the new budget bill "a win for Kentucky"? Hardly. Less funding for regulatory bodies will mean more environment-related health problems. Kentucky already suffers from extreme health disparities often worsened by air pollution and poor water quality. At best, the new bill will preserve the status quo in 2015.
This blog post was written by Shelly Biesel, originally as an op-editorial for the Courier-Journal, find it here.
It was Christmas time in 2008 when the wall of a coal combustion waste impoundment pond collapsed, inundating Kingston, Tenn., with over 1 billion gallons of toxic sludge.
Last month, almost six years later, the Environmental Protection Agency released a long-awaited rule on the classification and management of coal combustion waste, or coal ash, the byproduct that results when coal is burned to produce electricity.
The development of the rule involved an extended series of public hearings, a comment period and then a long wait — over two years — to hear how new federal policies would impact the way we manage coal ash. Health advocates hoped for better storage practices, a classification as a toxic waste and federal oversight.
And the verdict is in: Industry will remain in charge of its own practices, which means, without much oversight things may roll on with "business as usual."
Coal ash typically contains some of the world's most dangerous metals: arsenic, lead, mercury, cadmium, selenium, and a host of others that in elevated doses can cause cancer, neurological disorders, lung disease, heart disease, birth defects, kidney failure, asthma and many other health problems.
And yet, the new rule does not classify coal ash as hazardous waste.
Kentucky has 56 ponds, and generates about 9.2 million tons of coal ash annually, ranking fifth in the nation for the amount of coal ash created.
The EPA reports that Kentucky has the most coal ash dams rated "high hazard" in the nation. This means at eight of Kentucky's coal ash dams, if a disaster occurred like the one in Tennessee, it would most likely cost human lives.
The EPA has labeled six of Kentucky's ash dams as a "significant hazard," meaning an accident could cause property or infrastructural damage.
When ponds are leaking, dust is blowing and dams are weak, it's up to power corporations to hold themselves accountable for the risks they create.
Yet with Kentucky's track record, we're more likely to tell the frustrated neighbor that their request for a clean, healthful environment is a "war on coal" and it's downright unpatriotic to make claims that a coal company would do any harm.
If a resident of a community dealing with coal ash blowing onto their front porch is frustrated with that coal ash making a mess they can now ... file a federal lawsuit.
Written by Deborah Payne, MPH, as a special contribution to the Lexington Herald-Leader, find it here.