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The lack of federal regulation for coal ash has become something of a Congressional cause célèbre since that disastrous late December coal ash spill in Eastern Tennessee. Hardly anyone has matched the outrage of House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Nick Rahall, a West Virginia Democrat. But back in 2000, when coal ash regulation was being considered by the Clinton administration’s Environmental Protection Agency, Rahall seemed to be singing a different tune.

Since the Dec. 22 spill 40 miles southwest of Knoxville, Rahall has jumped on the coal ash issue with vigor. On Jan. 14, in fact, he introduced legislation requiring federal standards for coal-ash ponds like the one that collapsed in Tennessee. His bill, the “Coal Ash Reclamation and Environmental Safety Act of 2009,” would mandate minimum design, engineering, and performance guidelines for the 300 ponds that now exist nationwide, and that currently fall under the regulatory purview of the states.

Rahall pointed to the lack of any federal standards for the construction and maintenance of the wet ponds as the main reason for his swift action.

“The absence of national standards for coal ash has resulted in environmental damage and threats to human health throughout the country — not just last month, or last year, but for decades, and as far as we know this may be just the tip of the iceberg.” said Rahall.

But Rahall’s actions and remarks seem a sharp contrast with his position back in the spring of 2000, when the EPA seemed on the verge of proposing stricter federal controls under a “hazardous” designation for coal ash. In a March 1, 2000, letter, he and 10 other representatives wrote to then EPA-administrator Carol Browner urging the agency not to go so far as to impose hazardous-waste regulations on the toxic sludge. As the letter states:

[Coal] combustion wastes have long been recognized as posing little if any environmental compliance problems. . . No one can seriously claim that the states have failed to act responsibly in this area or that Federal intervention is necessary to address unmet environmental needs . . . we strongly urge the EPA not to regulate the ash from combustion of fossil fuels [coal ash] as a hazardous waste. . . Sound science and the EPA’s own data supports our contention that this move is both impractical and unnecessary.

One month later, Rahall and 36 other representatives expressed their “grave concerns” over such a regulatory scheme in a letter addressed to President Bill Clinton. “Rather than initiating a new regulatory action,” the April 6, 2000, letter concluded, “we hope that you would choose instead to have EPA work cooperatively with the states to ensure that their regulatory programs are sufficient.”

Why the seeming change of heart?

Rahall’s spokesperson, Allyson Groff, told PaperTrail she was not familiar with the letters, but emailed a brief statement: “Rep. Rahall has a long history of working to regulate coal ash waste,” she wrote, citing his co-sponsorship of a 1980 measure requiring EPA to determine how to regulate coal ash. Groff said Rahall also helped initiate a July 2006 National Academy of Sciences report on the dumping of coal ash in mine pits, which notes the need for federal oversight.

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Kristen Lombardi is the Columbia Journalism Investigations editor.