Both Democrat and Republican administrations have thus far failed to stand up to the coal lobby in the regulation of coal ash. In the final year of the Clinton administration, his EPA administrator Carol Browner came close to issuing a ruling on whether coal ash should be regulated based on findings of a study the agency conducted. The response from the coal lobby was intense and got the Browner-led agency to stop short of a full recommendation for government regulation.
While the EPA concluded coal ash is hazardous, it published two documents on how to respond. One document recommended federal regulation, and the other recommended leaving it to the states to decide on what course of action to take. The Bush administration was similarly reluctant to take up the issue of regulation of coal ash. However, in December of 2008, the Kingston Coal Plant in Tennessee released one billion barrels of slurry (a coal ash & water mixture) into 300 acres of nearby fields and streams when a containment dam broke. It is the largest industrial spill in US history and is 100x larger than the Exxon Valdez spill. Perhaps the convergence of events between the spill and the incoming Obama administration will ultimately lead to the regulation of this hazardous material.