by Ken Ward Jr., cross-posted from CoalTattoo

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials just finished their phone-in press conference to announce their action regarding regulation of toxic ash from coal-fired power plants.

In its press release, EPA describes its action this way:

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency today is proposing the first-ever national rules to ensure the safe disposal and management of coal ash from coal-fired power plants.

And it quotes EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson saying:

The time has come for common-sense national protections to ensure the safe disposal of coal ash. We’re proposing strong steps to address the serious risk of groundwater contamination and threats to drinking water and we’re also putting in place stronger safeguards against structural failures of coal ash impoundments. The health and the environment of all communities must be protected.

But after listening to the press conference, and as I read the 563-page document EPA just posted on its Web site,  I have a hard time understanding how this is more than the Obama administration punting on making a decision here.

As Coal Tattoo and many others in the media have reported, perhaps the most basic and important call for EPA on this issue is which part of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act the agency is going to use to regulate coal ash.

RCRA Subtitle D leaves many decisions to the states, while Subtitle C sets up a nationwide regulatory program set up by EPA. There’s an EPA breakdown of the differences available online here.

We’re now more than 16 months since the failure of a coal-ash impoundment at a TVA power plant in East Tennessee caused a huge environmental disaster, and thrust coal-ash regulation back into the public eye.  And we’re five months into 2010, after EPA’s Jackson had promised a regulatory proposal by the end of 2009.

And in today’s announcement EPA has put forth not an actual proposal … they’ve put forth two proposals — one that would use Subtitle D and another that would use Subtitle C.

Jackson told reporters that the two proposals involve “varying approaches to enforcement and oversight,” but that both “reflect a major step forward on the national level.” EPA is going to accept public comment on the two approaches for 90 days, and then decide which route to take.

On the one hand, Jackson told reporters today’s announcement is the start of  “a national dialogue” on which of these approaches would be best. On the other hand, she acknowledged there “has been lots of discussion already” and said, “EPA believes it is very important to get on with this regulatory process.”

It will be interesting to see how environmental groups react now to this …  here’s an initial comment from Lisa Evans of Earthjustice (whose group prefers the tougher approach of Subtitle C):

EPA’s coal ash proposal is certainly a step forward. While EPA has published two options, the science and law dictate only one path. Coal ash is hazardous and only hazardous waste regulations can protect communities and safeguard our drinking water. EPA has proposed that option and should be commended for this action.

Ken Ward, Jr. is a a reporter for the Charleston Gazette (since 1991), has won numerous awards for his investigative writing on worker safety and health, and is the chairman of the Society of Environmental Journalist’s First Amendment Taskforce.