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Arizona utilities seek state, not federal, regulation of ash

March 12, 2022 GMT

PHOENIX (AP) — Arizona lawmakers are advancing legislation backed by utilities to have state regulators, not their federal counterparts, regulate disposal of toxic ash produced by coal-fired power plants.

The bill would shift the regulatory duty from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality, the Arizona Republic reported.

A bill narrowly approved by the state House last month was endorsed Wednesday by a Senate committee, with one Democrat joining Republicans for the bill as other Democrats voted against it. If the bill remains unchanged, passage by the full Senate would send it to Republican Gov. Doug Ducey.

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Supporters of the bill, including the Department of Environmental Quality itself, say the agency has the expertise and is familiar with the utilities involved, which include Arizona Public Service Co., Tucson Electric Power Co. and the Salt River Project.

Opponents have questioned whether the DEQ should take on the added responsibility, suggesting it might weaken enforcement. They cited close ties between the utilities and the DEQ and problems that the agency has had in monitoring water quality.

The legislation is being considered as the Biden administration has begun taking enforcement actions that signal a shift from the Trump administration’s loosening of regulations.

“EPA is actually moving to do the kind of enforcement that has been needed for some time relative to these facilities, and so we think it is questionable that DEQ is pursuing this at this time,” said Sandy Bahr, director of the Grand Canyon Chapter of the Sierra Club, which opposes the state takeover.

Utilities say they have to comply with environmental regulations regardless of the proposed shift and note that the legislation would require that the state’s rules be as strict as those of the EPA.

“We support a state (coal ash) oversight program because it’s more efficient to work with someone locally who understands the conditions under which our facilities operate,” Tucson Electric Power Co. spokesperson Joseph Barrios said.

Coal ash, which is left behind when power plants burn coal to generate electricity, contains toxins like arsenic, mercury, lead, and other heavy metals. The ash can be disposed of in landfills, ponds or safely recycled into some building materials.

But if not done properly, landfills and ponds can leach pollutants into drinking water supply or have catastrophic failures.

Arizona has four operating coal plants: Cholla Power Plant in Navajo County, Springerville Generating Station and Coronado Generating Station in Apache County, and the Apache Generating Station in Cochise County.

The bill’s sponsor, Republican Rep. Gail Griffin of Hereford, said the state should look to take more responsibility from the federal government, even beyond coal ash.

“We should be working at taking care of things here at the local level, the state level, (rather) than somebody sitting in California or Washington, D.C.,” she said during a hearing in January. “We can do it better.”