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Utility groups applaud passage of coal ash, hydro provisions in water bill

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Utility groups applaud passage of coal ash, hydro provisions in water bill

Electric utility industry trade groups welcomed measures in the water resources bill passed by Congress that would give states more control over ash regulation and ensure more timely reviews for hydropower projects.

The U.S. Senate passed S. 612, the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation, or WIIN, Act, by a 78-21 vote Dec. 10 after the U.S. House of Representatives passed the bill by a 360-61 vote Dec. 8. The legislation authorizes 30 U.S. Army Corps of Engineers projects to address navigation, flood control and environmental restoration, as well as provides $170 million to address the drinking water crisis in Flint, Mich.

The bill also includes provisions pertaining directly to the electric power sector. The WIIN Act will allow states to form their own coal ash management programs, a change the utility sector hopes will reduce citizen lawsuits against electric generators over their coal ash storage practices. The U.S. EPA's final coal ash rule released in December 2014 gave the federal agency direct authority over coal ash storage units, leaving citizen lawsuits as the only enforcement mechanism. The WIIN Act contains a provision that will change the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act — the law under which the EPA's coal ash rule was promulgated — so that states can submit their own coal ash permitting programs to the EPA for approval.

"As the EPA's coal ash regulation goes into effect and our industry begins to close coal ash basins, these legislative provisions will enable states to be more involved in the permitting process for the closure of basins," Edison Electric Institute President Tom Kuhn said Dec. 10.

The power industry also applauded the WIIN Act's hydropower permitting provisions. The bill requires the Secretary of the Army to decide that a hydropower project application is complete within 30 days of the application being submitted or, if not, determine what items are needed for the application to be complete. The Secretary must also decide whether to grant or deny approval for the project within 90 days of a completed application being submitted. The reforms are aimed at making a more timely hydropower approval process on Army-owned dams.

The hydropower reforms are "modest but important," said Darren Goode, communications director for ClearPath Action, a group that promotes "conservative" clean energy solutions such as nuclear power, hydropower and advanced coal and natural gas-fired plants.

"The WIIN Act will help electric co-ops provide affordable, reliable electricity to rural America by authorizing and promoting infrastructure projects pertaining to hydropower, flood control, water supply and emergency management," National Rural Electric Cooperative Association CEO Jim Matheson said. "The bill also injects greatly needed certainty into the regulation of coal ash by giving states clear permitting and enforcement authority and reducing litigation, while providing for its continued beneficial use."

The bill will now head to President Barack Obama's desk for signing.