The Trump administration’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced today that it would be rolling back environmental rules aimed at protecting drinking water from the waste products of coal-burning power plants, including hazardous heavy metals like lead, arsenic, and mercury. At issue is coal ash, a contaminant-laden residue from burning coal, which coal-fired plants were and are often keeping in water in unlined pits, which has lead to groundwater contamination from leeching as well as to outright overflow into waterways. The Obama era rules mandated coal fired plants invest in wastewater treatment, stop using unlined ponds to contain the coal ash waste, and install monitoring systems for containment ponds. Those measures, if put in place, were estimated to be able to keep 1.4 billion pounds of coal ash from entering waterways.
The magnitude of the problem of contamination of waterways by coal-burning power plants is staggering. A study conducted by The Environmental Integrity Project found that 91% of U.S. coal-fired power plants were contaminating groundwater. The applicable Obama-era rules were established in 2015 and set to be fully implemented by coal-burning plants by 2018. The Trump administration in 2017 first announced a delay in that implementation, so coal plants did not have to comply by 2018, and now has rolled back the rules, so the plants do not have to comply at all. According to The Hill:
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. …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. …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.
This rule change is now in a 60 day comment period before it goes into effect, during which time environmental groups are expected to sue to prevent the rollback from happening. Betsy Southerland, who helped develop the 2015 rule as a former director of the EPA’s Office of Science and Technology in the Office of Water expressed dismay at today’s announced rollback, saying, according to The Hill, “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. …These things are leaking like crazy into ground water or busting into rivers. The people living around these plants are just screwed.”
The Trump administration’s Environmental Protection Agency continues to focus on protecting industry, particularly the fossil fuel industry, instead of protecting the environment, contrary to the agency’s name and mandate. The scientific consensus, supported by a vast amount of data, is that the burning of fossil fuels is contributing to climate change and is an urgent matter. And any person can see the local and regional hazards posed by coal-fired plants leaking heavy metal waste products into waterways and groundwater. The way forward, to protect both human health and the climate, is to focus on clean, renewable energy sources, yet the Trump administration continues to focus on fossil fuels. They could instead try to shift workers in fossil fuels to renewable energy jobs, which would preserve employment, but instead, for the votes and for the lobbying interests of the fossil fuel industry, the Trump administration has impeded renewable energy research and focused on pushing for fossil fuel use, possibly to our peril.