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Government oversight remains 'grossly inadequate' in coal-ash waste control 

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Besides releasing reports and asking for feedback, the EPA hasn't done anything but make promises. Meanwhile, everyone — Duke Energy, the state, environmental groups, concerned citizens — continues to wait for the agency to determine whether coal ash should be treated as a hazardous waste or as regular trash. The EPA estimates that nationally it will cost $20.3 billion a year to regulate coal ash as a hazardous waste and $8.1 billion to regulate it as non-hazardous. The agency also estimates this regulation will save $290 billion annually in health-care costs.

Never mind the health-care savings, though. The coal industry, and companies incorporating coal-ash into their products, scream "stigma." While the companies can't point to any specifics, they're concerned that any regulation at all will make coal ash less attractive to their customers.

According to Culbert, Duke Energy brought in $2 million in 2010 from sales of coal ash — the dry ash, not the gunk in Riverbend's ponds. "Beneficial reuse also benefits the company because we don't have to dispose of the material," she said. "If you add revenues and savings, the benefit to the company was more than $30 million" last year.

That may explain why, according to OpenSecrets.org, Progress and Duke share the No. 1 spot for the most mentions of "coal ash" — 56 combined — in federal lobbying documents. It also may explain why the amount of lobbying money both companies spent spiked last year. If the two merge, it will be the country's largest energy company, which means power in Washington.

This lobbying, together with the current anti-EPA Congress, has effectively stalled the decision-making process. Now, nearly three years after the TVA disaster and a year after the EPA's hearings, coal-ash regulation remains in the same holding pattern it's been in for decades. Asked when the public might expect a ruling, the EPA replied simply, "Currently, no date has been set."

At least the agency that "protects" our environment has stopped making promises it can't keep.

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