WASHINGTON – On Monday, the Trump Environmental Protection Agency announced plans to roll back regulations on how coal-fired power plants store coal ash waste and dispose of industrial water contaminated with heavy metals, according to The Hill.
Coal ash is a highly toxic byproduct of burning coal at power plants and can contain dangerous levels of arsenic, chromium, lead and mercury. In 2015, the Obama administration adopted safeguards that required coal-burning facilities to invest in technologies that, according to the EPA at that time, would stop roughly 1.4 billion pounds of coal ash from being released into rivers, lakes and streams. These measures were designed to protect drinking water sources from coal ash pollution.
The proposals announced today by EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler will scale back installation of new technologies for the treatment of coal ash contaminants and exempt a substantial number of power plants from all environmental requirements adopted in 2015 under the Obama-era rule, according to two sources with inside knowledge of the new rules, as reported by the New York Times.
This is the latest regulatory rollback by Wheeler and President Trump in their desperate attempt to save the dying coal industry, which just a few years ago provided well over 50 percent of the nation’s electricity. Today, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, coal makes up around 27 percent of the energy mix as it continues its precipitous decline in the face of cheaper natural gas and the abundance of renewable sources like wind and solar.
“This is yet another destructive ploy by the Trump administration to aid and abet ‘clean coal,’” said EWG President Ken Cook. “These rollbacks further cement for the American people that public health and environmental protection are as high up on the president’s list of priorities as free and fair elections.”
“This move may keep a coal plant operating a year or two longer, but the industry is on its last gasp and there’s no number of rollbacks the Trump EPA can do to reverse its certain demise as a major U.S. energy source,” said Cook. “These steps taken by Mr. Wheeler will, however, continue to allow industry to cut corners and ignore its responsibility to protect drinking water sources from extremely dangerous contaminants.”
Toxic coal ash is one of the biggest contamination challenges facing the U.S. In 2014, Duke Energy, the nation’s largest investor-owned utility, with one of the worst environmental and public health records among the electricity industry, dumped nearly 40,000 tons of coal ash into the Dan River, which runs through Virginia and North Carolina.
Drinking water sources near coal-fired power generators are regularly polluted with coal ash contamination. In March 2019, the Environmental Integrity Project and Earthjustice analyzed data made public by power companies showing that 241 of the 261 plants, or 91 percent, that were required to monitor ground water under the 2015 Obama administration rules had unsafe levels of one or more coal ash contaminants. And more than 50 percent of those power plants had dangerously high levels of arsenic in nearby groundwater.
The majority of Americans who live near coal-fired power plants and coal ash contamination sites are often low-income communities of color.
The Environmental Working Group is a nonprofit, non-partisan organization that empowers people to live healthier lives in a healthier environment. Through research, advocacy and unique education tools, EWG drives consumer choice and civic action.