EPA Loosens Regulations on Toxic Ash from Coal Plants

EPA Loosens Regulations on Toxic Ash from Coal Plants

The Trump Administration is expected to roll back regulations on toxins released from coal plants. The change will specifically address the leaching of heavy metals like arsenic, lead, and mercury into water supplies.

The Trump administration has long contended with the Obama era’s environmental regulations; this time, it’s taking a stab at emission regulations of toxic ash by coal-fired power plants, according to a New York Times article.

A handful of new rules are expected to go into effect in the coming days, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) under the Trump Administration will weaken regulation on coal plants. The 2015 regulation from the Obama-era aimed to strengthen inspection and monitoring at coal plants, lowered acceptable levels of toxic effluent, and required plants to install new technology to protect water supplies from contaminated coal ash.

The EPA’s new regulation will loosen some requirements and exempt a number of other power plants from any of the requirements, according to two sources familiar with the Trump Administration who requested anonymity. The move is part of a series of deregulatory efforts by the Trump Administration to bolster the coal industry.

Coal ash, a residue produced from burning coal, has long had environmental and public health concerns. However, the use and disposal of coal ash has not always been regulated or prioritized, necessarily. Coal ash has been stored in holding areas near power plants, largely without regulation—however, concern for its treatment only recently came to public attention after two major spills in North Carolina and Tennessee that sent mercury, cadium, arsenic, and other heavy metals from ash into water supplies.

Not surprisingly, opinions have been torn on the pending EPA regulation changes. Coal industry officials say Obama-era regulations are unreasonable and make unnecessary requirements, but environmental groups warn that regulatory rollback could lead to contaminated drinking water and encourage dirty energy sources.

“We support reasonable regulations for coal ash and non-coal-ash byproducts that protect health and the environment,” said Michelle Bloodworth, president and chief executive of the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity. “At the same time, it is important that regulations not cause unnecessary retirements or idling of coal-fired power plants because they are necessary to ensure that consumers have a reliable, resilient, and affordable electricity supply.”

Environmental groups are fearful of contaminated drinking water that could lead to birth defects, cancer, and stunted brain development in young children. However, despite the administration’s effort to bolster the coal industry as it slowly declines in the face of greener energy forms, energy analysts said that the move will do little to save the coal industry from its eventual decline.

“While it might keep some existing coal plants running a little bit longer, it’s at best a Band-Aid on a bullet wound that the market has sent the coal industry,” said Joshua Rhodes, a senior energy analyst with Vibrant Clean Energy, a clean technology consultancy based in Colorado.
Environmentalists also cannot forget two of the biggest coal ash disasters America has seen within the last few years. A 2008 spill in Tennessee occurred when a containment pond ruptured at the Kingston Fossil plant and more than 1.1 billion gallons of coal-ash slurry spilled into nearby rivers and destroyed homes.

In 2014, a broken pipe spilled millions of gallons of liquified coal ash from a retired power plant into the Dan River in North Carolina. The river was turned into dark sludge, and drinking water supplies was threatened. Afterward, electric utility Duke Energy was required to pay a $6 million fine for the violation of water protection laws, and North Carolina passed a new law that required all coal ash storage ponds to close by 2029.

Even then, coal industry supporters went head to head with environmentalists, saying these incidents were exaggerated. Environmentalists strongly disagreed. Now, general counsel for Earthjustice Lisa Evans called the EPA’s plan “a huge step backward and incredibly dangerous.”

Opposed environmentalists also refer to a recent study by environmental groups that pointed to the high rate of water contamination already sourced by coal-fired plants. The study found that over 90 percent of the 265 coal plants required to test their groundwater near coal ash dumps discovered unsafe levels of at least one contaminant. According to environmental groups that track the issue, power plants are responsible for dumping more than 1 billion pounds of pollutants every year into 4,000 miles of rivers and contaminating the drinking water and fisheries of 2.7 million people.  

The 2015 rule set the following requirements for power plants, along with others: deadlines for power plants to invest in modern wastewater treatment technology to keep toxic pollution out of local waterways; a requirement that power plants monitor local water quality; and a requirement that plants make more information publicly available.

The new rule change proposed by Trump’s EPA intends to claim that it would remove more pollutants than the estimated 1.4 billion pounds expected by the Obama rule, said anonymous EPA-related source. However, the assertion is based on an analysis that assumes about 30 percent of power plants will voluntarily chose to install more rigorous technology without government regulation.

The new rule will also confine the areas that utilities must measure for leakage, according to the second anonymous, EPA-related source.

Other adjustments proposed by the new EPA rule include an extension of the time that the industry could use certain sites adjacent to groundwater areas for dumping by 18 months. The changes are expected to be less expensive for companies too: Andrew Wheeler, the administrator of the EPA and a former lobbyist for the coal industry, said that the relaxed rules would save affected utility companies $28 million to $31 million a year in regulatory costs.

Environmentalists intend to challenge the rollbacks in court before the EPA issues a final rule, most likely early next year.

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