WASHINGTON – Duke Energy and other electric utilities are rushing to take advantage of a Trump Environmental Protection Agency rule that relaxed restrictions for coal-fired power plants’ disposal of toxic coal ash wastewater before the Biden EPA decides whether to revise or rescind the regulation, according to E&E News.
A total of 23 Midwest and Southeast utilities that generate at least a portion of electricity from coal want state regulators to use the 2020 rule’s weaker wastewater limitation guidelines in the facilities’wastewater permits. This would make those limits binding for at least five years, even if EPA moves to undo or overhaul the standards.
Thomas Cmar, deputy managing attorney for Earthjustice's coal program, said in the E&E News report by Hannah Northey and Benjamin Storrow that if states grant the utilities’ requests, it will be harder to unravel those permit limits.
Late last year, a number of environmental organizations sued the EPA over the Trump wastewater policy. In January, President Biden identified the rule as one of 48 EPA policies that would be reviewed and possibly revised or rescinded. And the agency said in a recent federal appeals court filing that it will decide later this summer whether to repeal the Trump policy.
The Trump rule reversed a 2015 Obama EPA rule that set stricter standards for how coal plants store and discharge wastewater. It also extended the length of time utilities have to adopt new measures to curb the amount of wastewater they produce.
Water flushes out coal ash from power plants and is then dumped into wastewater “settling ponds” that often overflow and are discarded into nearby bodies of water, including drinking water sources. Coal ash wastewater is contaminated with heavy metals, including mercury and arsenic, that are highly toxic to wildlife and people.
Michelle Bloodworth, president and CEO of America’s Power, a lobbying and trade organization that represents the coal power sector, warned in a statement to E&E News that if the Biden EPA were to ditch the current rule, many coal plants would close as a result.
“We remain concerned that additional pressures put on the coal fleet, including those that arise from overly stringent updates to existing environmental regulations, will likely lead to additional retirements, further risking the reliability and resilience of the grid,” said Bloodworth.
“Of course the coal industry is terrified EPA may reverse the Trump era rule – and it should be,” said Ken Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group. “The agency is no longer being run by a former coal lobbyist who bent over backwards every day to appease the industry he once worked for,” he said, referring to former Trump EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler, who signed off on the wastewater rule.
Charlotte-based Duke has asked North Carolina regulators to make wastewater permit changes for five of its coal-fired power plants in the state based on the Trump policy.
“It should come as no surprise to the residents of North Carolina that Duke would seek help from state regulators to get around any new safeguards the Biden administration might implement,” said Cook. “Duke has a long rap sheet of reckless disregard for the environment, public health and communities where its coal plants operate.”
Duke is one of the worst offenders among power companies when it comes to coal ash pollution. In 2014, a leak at one of its facilities spread coal ash along roughly 70 miles of the Dan River, which stretches from southern Virginia across the border into North Carolina. In 2015, Duke pled guilty to a number of federal environmental crimes associated with the spill and paid more than $100 million in fines.
Coal ash is one of the leading sources of industrial water contamination in the country, and a 2020 Earthjustice report found more than 730 coal ash units in 43 states.
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