WASHINGTON — Coal ash spilled onto Barack Obama's agenda Wednesday when his pick to run the Environmental Protection Agency spoke of possibly regulating the waste from coal-fired power plants.
Lisa Jackson promised at a Senate hearing to immediately assess the hundreds of coal ash disposal sites at power plants across the country in the wake of two spills in Alabama and Tennessee.
The EPA also will consider whether to regulate how the ash is stored, she said. The EPA recommended that in 2000, but the Bush administration did not act on the idea.
"The EPA currently has, and has in the past, assessed its regulatory options, and I think it is time to re-ask those questions," Jackson told the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.
Coal ash ponds storing waste created by burning coal are not subject to federal regulations. Oversight of the roughly 300 ponds located in 32 states varies by state.
Since the spills at two plants operated by the Tennessee Valley Authority, several lawmakers have urged the EPA to regulate the disposal of ash as a solid waste. Others have asked questions about why the agency does not consider the ash to be hazardous waste even though it contains toxic ingredients.
The chairman of the House Natural Resources, Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., introduced legislation Wednesday that would direct the Interior Department to set uniform design and engineering standards for coal ash ponds at power plants. The agency has similar regulations for coal slurry ponds at coal mines.
Other lawmakers, including the Senate committee head, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., say that is the EPA's job. "You have the authority to regulate this," Boxer told Jackson.
Jackson, a chemical engineer, was less definitive on other pressing issues, including global warming.
She assured lawmakers that EPA decisions will be based on science and the law, not politics. Her statement was a clear signal that Obama plans to take the agency in a different direction from the outgoing Republican administration, which sometimes overruled the EPA's own experts on global warming and other matters.
"Science must be the backbone of what EPA does," said Jackson. "EPA's addressing of scientific decisions should reflect the expert judgment of the agency's career scientists and independent advisers."
Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe, the top Republican on the committee and a supporter of Bush administration policies, said "that was music to my ears."
"I hope that includes a recognition that science changes," said Inhofe, who readily publicizes research from global warming detractors.
The committee also considered heard from Nancy Sutley, Obama's choice to lead the White House Council on Environmental Quality.
Sutley said she would be the "voice for the environment in the White House." But when asked how her role would work with that of climate and energy chief Carol Browner, Sutley offered few details.
Senators, as expected, pressed Jackson for details on how the incoming administration plans to tackle global warming, hazardous waste sites and water pollution.
Jackson left the door open to using current laws to regulate the gases blamed for global warming. Republican say laws aimed at reducing air pollution and protecting endangered species should not be used to address climate change.
Environmental laws, she said, "were meant to address not only the issues of today, but the issues of tomorrow."
Obama has called for legislation to curb gas emissions blamed for global warming. It is unclear whether he will pursue a new law first or use existing ones to address the problem more quickly.
Echoing a promise made by Obama, Jackson said she would revisit the decision by Bush's EPA and consider allowing California and other states to regulate greenhouse gases from tailpipes.
If confirmed, Jackson, 46, would be the first black person to lead the EPA _ an agency with 17,000 employees and a $7 billion budget.
Before running New Jersey's Environmental Protection Department, Jackson worked at the EPA for 16 years.
Sutley, 46, is the deputy mayor for energy and environment in Los Angeles. She is the daughter of Argentine immigrants and is a gay rights activist. She also worked at the EPA during the Clinton administration.
On the Net:
Senate Environment and Public Works Committee: http://epw.senate.gov
Environmental Protection Agency: http://www.epa.gov
White House Council on Environmental Quality: http://www.whitehouse.gov/ceq/