WASHINGTON - In Maryland's Zekiah Swamp, one of the Chesapeake Bay's most important tributaries, 8.4 million tons of coal ash in pits from former operations of the Morgantown power plant are leaking into groundwater. Residents on the Moapa River Reservation north of Las Vegas blame a spike in respiratory illnesses on the uncovered ash ponds and ash dump from a generating station nearby.
The ash left after burning coal includes toxic elements such as arsenic, lead, cadmium, selenium and mercury. Produced by 431 coal-fired power plants, which supply 36 percent of the nation's electricity, coal ash piles up at the staggering rate of 140 million tons a year.
More than 40 percent of it is recycled to help make concrete, gypsum wallboard and pavement. But utilities store the rest in landfills, ponds or mines, and evidence has been growing in recent years that leakage is a problem.
"The time has come for common-sense national protections to assure safe disposal of these materials," Environmental Protection Agency administrator Lisa Jackson said. That was in 2010.
Despite ongoing controversy - in the last week and a half alone environment groups have sued 14 power plants in North Carolina and four in Illinois over coal ash contamination - no one expects anything more to happen before the election. After that, it depends on the priorities of the party controlling the White House.
President Barack Obama and challenger Mitt Romney both stress that they support coal operations, and Republicans and Democrats agree that the federal government needs to establish a national standard for managing coal ash, also known as fly ash.
Water contaminated by coal ash violated federal drinking water or health standards at at least 197 sites in 37 states, according to the environmental group Earthjustice. The EPA gave 45 ponds at 27 locations in the United States a "high hazard potential rating," meaning that if the encasing for the ponds break, it would probably result in the loss of human life.
But should coal ash be labeled a hazardous waste? That determination will give the EPA direct enforcement authority over coal ash, rather than leaving it to the states, and will impose new handling procedures on utilities that will increase their costs. And while EPA and environmentalists say this will heighten the incentive for recycling, given the higher cost of disposal, recycling companies and mining industry officials predict fewer companies will be willing to incorporate coal ash into their products if it's labeled as hazardous.
Two and a half years ago Jackson outlined three possible rules for storing and disposing of coal ash, but none have become final. The first would designate it a hazardous waste; the other two would regulate it as a solid waste.
Any of the options would increase the frequency of pond inspections, impose new health and environmental protection requirements, require controls on dust blowing from the sites and close dumps in sinkholes and other ground that could give way. Declaring it a hazardous waste would ban the construction of any new coal ash ponds and require all existing ponds to be phased out, forcing companies to put it in landfills designed to handle hazardous waste. One of the less stringent options EPA proposed would not require closure of unlined pounds, which have been a major source of contamination.
House Republicans have passed legislation twice that would give states primary authority over coal ash sites but allow the EPA to step in if it determined state oversight was inadequate; Democrats have blocked the measure on the grounds it is not stringent enough.
Eric Schaeffer, who directs the Environmental Integrity Project, an advocacy group, said the EPA has delayed issuing a final rule out of fear of angering those who already accuse the administration of unfairly targeting the coal industry by imposing new pollution restrictions on power plants and stricter standards for disposing of mining waste.
"The reason they're not acting on the coal ash rule is politics," he said. "They don't want any more rules on coal before the election. It's as simple as that."
EPA spokeswoman Alisha Johnson said in an e-mail that the agency "is following long established rulemaking procedures and requirements," and is reviewing additional technical data along with "more than 450,000 comments on the proposed rule, which raised a number of complex issues."