EPA effort to tighten rules on coal waste has Gore on spot; Environmentalists, labor pressure candidate from opposite sides of issue


WASHINGTON -- An all-out push by the Environmental Protection Agency to impose strict new regulations on waste from coal-fired power plants has deeply divided two coalitions vital to Al Gore's presidential hopes: environmentalists and labor unions.

An arcane regulatory issue has thus thrust the vice president into a political squeeze.

The White House has until the end of the month to decide whether to grant the EPA the authority to impose regulations that utilities say could cost them as much as $5 billion a year. Under the EPA's new rules, ash and sludge from nearly 600 coal-fired plants nationwide -- usually tossed into unmonitored landfills or unlined surface ponds -- would be regulated as hazardous waste for the first time.

The EPA's request has long been sought by environmentalists. They contend that the waste has polluted ground water with arsenic, cadmium, chromium, lead and mercury.

But environmentalists have run into opposition from powerful unions, along with Democratic lawmakers, including Sens. Barbara A. Mikulski and Paul S. Sarbanes of Maryland and Sen. Tom Daschle of South Dakota, the Democratic leader in the Senate.

Each side of the issue has homed in on the same political button to push: Gore.

Five unions, including the Teamsters, United Mine Workers and International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, fired off a letter to the vice president on March 29. They warned of "staggering waste management regulatory costs" and "thousands of jobs" at stake.

In response, 280 environmental, health and citizens groups hand-delivered letters of support to the vice president. Jim Dushaw, director of the utility department at the electrical workers union, referred to pressure during this political year as "the silly season."

The vice president's office has refused to comment on the issue while it is in an interagency review at the White House. But all sides acknowledge that they have put Gore on the spot.

The vice president has already rankled both environmentalists and union leaders with his push to help China enter the World Trade Organization. On the power plant regulations, he will disappoint one of those groups no matter what side he lands on.

"Gore is in a delicate position," said Dan Riedinger, a spokesman for the Edison Electric Institute, the utility industry's lobbying arm. "Certainly, there has been political pressure applied to both [EPA Administrator] Carol Browner and to Gore."

EPA officials insist that they are on solid ground in their request to extend their reach into coal-plant waste. The agency studied plants in Indiana, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Wisconsin and Virginia, where they found that 86 percent of ground-water samples contained arsenic concentrations more than 10 times the agency's new health standard.

Excess lead was found in ground water near a New York ash landfill. Arsenic and selenium were detected in North Dakota. Elevated levels of fluoride, boron and manganese were found in Wisconsin.

In all, EPA found 11 proven cases of pollution from coal-plant waste and 25 potential pollution sites, according to internal documents forwarded to the White House for review.

Yet even the EPA acknowledges that it did not come to its decision easily. The utility industry has made "significant improvements" in waste management, and "most state regulatory programs are similarly improving," EPA documents concede. State environmental agencies -- including the Maryland Department of the Environment -- have lined up against the EPA's regulatory request.

The agency's inconsistency has also left it open to attack. A year ago, an EPA report to Congress indicated that it would continue to exempt coal-plant refuse from hazardous-waste regulations. Its turnaround now has been seized upon by the unions, utilities and lawmakers who are pressing to kill the EPA's request.

"If the administrative process is subverted by this illogical reversal, demand for America's most abundant fuel will sharply decline, energy prices will rise and thousands of jobs will be lost," the unions warned Gore in a sternly worded letter.

Some Democratic lawmakers have been convinced by utility and union lobbyists that the regulations would actually do more harm than good to the environment. A letter of opposition from 33 senators -- including more than a dozen Democrats -- was dashed off to Browner. The congressional delegation from Pennsylvania -- a key battleground state for the presidential campaign -- wrote its own letter to Gore, urging that the EPA's proposed regulations be blocked.

Sarbanes and Mikulski say that ash from coal plants actually serves an important environmental role: It is being used in western Maryland to fill abandoned mines and neutralize acidic runoff that is polluting rivers and streams. The compliance costs of new regulations, Sarbanes contends, might destroy those experiments.

Baltimore Gas and Electric Co., whose three Maryland coal plants produce 600,000 tons of fly ash a year, has lobbied heavily on the issue. Much of its ash is used in construction landfills and mine reclamation, or sold to cement makers.

If that ash is suddenly declared a hazardous waste, those alternative uses could dry up, said Stephen L. Pattison, BG&E;'s supervisor for air and waste management. The cost would be "certainly in the millions, possibly in the tens of millions," Pattison said.

EPA officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, dispute the industry's cost estimates and the unions' doomsday warnings. If the power plants and states are doing so well already, they asked, why should they suddenly face such enormous liabilities? EPA's estimate of the industry's compliance cost is between $300 million and $400 million a year, a fraction of the industry's range of $3.35 billion to $5 billion.

But the EPA and its environmentalist allies say they fear that the political battle is turning against them. Environmentalists sued the EPA in 1991 to force a regulatory decision; a deadline for that decision had been set for Monday. The Clinton administration sought a delay last week, and late yesterday, it received a 15-day extension.

That will give critics of the regulations more time to mount an attack that has already begun wearing the White House down. The Energy Department, as well as the Interior Department's Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement, have opposed the EPA's regulations, saying they would raise the costs of coal-fired power and complicate mining cleanup.

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