Business groups and some Republicans are also frustrated with federal inaction. Kirk Benson, CEO of the nation's biggest fly ash recycler, HW Headwaters, said it's challenging to raise capital while EPA delays issuing the rule.
"They're between a rock and hard place. So they do nothing," Benson said in an interview. "Doing nothing is a problem for us."
And Rep. David B. McKinley, R-W.Va., who authored the bill passed by the House on coal ash, said in an interview that Democrats have blocked what would have been "the first national standard we were having for impoundment."
The question of how to deal with coal combustion waste has frustrated policymakers for decades. After the EPA proposed in 1978 that coal ash be regulated as a hazardous waste under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, then-Rep. Tom Bevill, D-Ala., countered with a 1981 amendment that exempted it. Nearly two decades later the Clinton administration announced it would designate it a "contingent hazardous waste," but utilities said such a move would cost billions. Former EPA administrator Carol Browner reversed course and said the agency would classify it as a solid waste, but the issue lay idle during the Bush administration.
Mining and utility officials, along with coal ash recyclers, back the less stringent options. The hazardous waste designation "would require a wholesale change" under which the company would either have to truck the ash off-site or establish its own hazardous waste landfill, said Starla Lacy, NV Energy's executive of environmental services and safety.
Environmental and community activists, however, said more lenient controls would fail to eliminate the health and environmental threats.
Curt and Debbie Havens are debating whether they should sell the family home in Chester, W.Va., in which they have lived for close to four decades. The Havens have documented that water from First Energy's Little Blue Run coal ash pond has seeped onto their land, and sometimes the smell of hydrogen sulfide makes it impossible to sit on their back porch. Repeated hydrogen sulfide exposure can cause respiratory problems.
Debbie Havens, who is negotiating to sell her home to First Energy, said she and her husband don't want to sell, but "I just hope we get out of here before one of us gets sick, and that's the rest of our life."
The Moapa Band of Paiutes members are far less able to move.
"This is our birthplace," said William Anderson, the tribe's chairman. "This is our home." The reservation is adjacent to the Reid Gardner Generating Station. Clouds of coal ash sometimes blow over from a landfill next the plant; residents question why 10 of 15 children living closest to the station have asthma, and the groundwater has had 136 known drinking water violations since 2010. The Sierra Club launched "The Cost Of Coal," a project aimed at pressuring the plant to close.
Lacy, who helps oversee operations at the plant, said the company has paid for third-party air quality monitoring on the reservation for more than six years and has not identified any violations of federal standards. The company has applied a mineral coating to ash piles to keep it in place, she added, and all its ponds are double-lined with monitoring sensors to detect a leak.
"We're subject to intense scrutiny and routine inspections" by state officials, Lacy added.
Zekiah Swamp in Charles County, Md., abuts the Faulkner landfill on its western edge. The Morgantown power plant started dumping coal ash into the unfilled landfill in the 1970s; GenOn Energy took over the facility in 2010 and stopped the practice. Spokeswoman Misty Allen said the company "will soon begin construction to install a synthetic cap over the fly ash, which will mitigate, if not eliminate over time, the risk of leachate."
Earthjustice senior attorney Lisa Evans said it took a 2011 federal lawsuit filed by Maryland officials to prompt GenOn's action: "Lawsuits are changing corporate behavior, but that's not a safety plan for the nation."