The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on Monday announced it would roll back Obama-era regulations on how coal-fired power plants dispose of waste laden with arsenic, lead and mercury.
The Trump administration’s proposals weaken rules dealing with the residue from burning coal, known as coal ash, as well as the residue rinsed off of filters installed on smoke stacks. Both are often mixed with water and stored in giant pits that could leach into groundwater or be released directly into local waterways.
The rollbacks, which were spurred by a court decision ordering EPA to overhaul the use of unlined ponds, target 2015 Obama administration rules that required power plants to invest in wastewater treatment technology and monitoring of coal ash ponds, measures they estimated would stop some 1.4 billion pounds of coal ash from entering rivers and streams.
Companies will now have more time to leave coal ash sitting in storage ponds and power plants could petition to keep large ponds open for up to eight more years, until 2028.
The proposals are the latest attempt by the Trump administration to prop up the coal industry, which has been losing ground to renewables and natural gas.
The EPA said the new rules “support the Trump Administration’s commitment to responsible, reasonable regulations by taking a commonsense approach, which also protects public health and the environment.”
Environmental groups have already threatened to sue over the proposal, which now faces a 60-day comment period.
Betsy Southerland, a former director of the EPA’s Office of Science and Technology in the Office of Water who helped develop the 2015 rule, said the latest proposals give broad exceptions and extensions that will increase the likelihood of contaminating nearby water.
“The 2015 rule being replaced today documented that coal fired power plants discharge over 1 billion pounds of pollutants every year into 4,000 miles of rivers, contaminating the drinking water and fisheries of 2.7 million people,” she said.
She also took issue with the EPA assumption that many companies would voluntarily install additional pollution controls.
And while the latest proposal keeps the monitoring process, Southerland said that will be of little comfort to communities who live near waste ponds that may now stay open years longer than expected.
“These things are leaking like crazy into ground water or busting into rivers,” she said. “The people living around these plants are just screwed.”
Coal ash can be highly dangerous. A spill of the waste near Kingston, Tenn. in 2008 sent more than 1 billion gallons pouring out into the town. A decade later, 200 workers who helped clean up the spill sued, arguing the exposure led to brain, lung, and skin cancer along with other illnesses.
Increasingly strong storms threaten more spills as the open ponds become overwhelmed by rainwater and send the sludge beyond the confines of the pond.
But it doesn’t take a major storm to leave those communities at risk. The Environmental Integrity Project, which reviewed monitoring data from the ponds, found that 91 percent of U.S. coal-fired power plants were contaminating groundwater.
“This rule by the Trump administration puts millions of people’s drinking water in jeopardy, streams, rivers and even private wells are in the crosshairs of this pollution and when tragedy strikes from a flood, hurricane or a breach from a unlined coal ash pit or pond everyday citizens are left with contaminated water,” said Mustafa Ali, a former head of environmental justice at the EPA who noted that most of the 6 million people that live within three miles of a coal-fired power plant are disproportionately people of color and lower income communities.
Power plants were slated to comply with the Obama-era rule in 2018, but in 2017 then EPA head Scott Pruitt delayed its implementation, leading environmentalists argue the changes could have severe impacts on drinking water
“Keeping industrial sludge and foul wastewater from coal plants out of our drinking water supplies shouldn’t be something that should be up for debate, but Donald Trump and Scott Pruitt just made it one,” the Sierra Club wrote when the rule was first proposed, describing it as “unconscionable from a public health – and common sense – perspective.”
–This report was updated at 12:33 p.m.