The Environmental Protection Agency today announced its plan to severely roll back protections that govern the storage and disposal of toxic coal ash and wastewater from coal-fired power plants.
The proposals weaken two rules adopted in 2015. One would have required power plants to close or line coal ash ponds to stop them from leaking toxic pollution into groundwater resources. The other would have limited the amount of contaminated pollution that power plants could discharge into waterways.
Today’s proposed rules will allow coal plants to continue discharging toxic pollutants like arsenic, mercury and selenium, known to be extremely harmful to humans and fish.
“These proposals represent a ridiculous backward leap by Trump’s EPA that will sentence millions of Americans to poorer health and increase the risk coal ash spills pose to our communities,” said Hannah Connor, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “These absurd rollbacks are an irrational, cynical move to curry favor with coal companies. They will increase the toxic threats from coal use to hundreds of imperiled critters that live in our streams and rivers, like shortnose sturgeon and hellbender salamanders.”
Under these proposals, Coal-fired plants will also receive an additional grace period, stretching to Aug. 31, 2020, to either upgrade or begin to close all unlined coal ash ponds. That period may be extended upon request, under the proposal. But if a plant can show that it is shutting down its coal boiler, it can petition to keep its unlined coal ash ponds opened for up to eight years, or until October 2028.
Coal-burning power plants are the country’s largest source of toxic water pollution. They generate more toxic wastewater than the next two most polluting industries combined — petroleum refining and paper mills. In total coal-fired power plants discharge more than 1 billion pounds of pollutants every year into approximately 4,000 miles of rivers, contaminating fisheries and the drinking water of 2.7 million people.
Coal ash ponds are the result of mixing the ash created by coal-fired power plants with water and storing it in large, impoundment-like structures. Hundreds of them currently exist in almost every state in the country and Puerto Rico.
In addition to leaking, coal ash ponds are susceptible to catastrophic failure. Last year a dam breach during Hurricane Florence swamped two such ponds, holding about 2.1 million cubic yards of coal ash, at Duke Energy’s L.V. Sutton facility near Wilmington, N.C. The pond’s toxic slurry spilled into the Cape Fear River.
Last year’s breach followed a 2014 spill at Duke’s Dan River plant in Eden, N.C., that released an estimated 39,000 tons of coal ash into the Dan.
Pollutants discharged by coal-burning plants can cause severe health problems, including cancer, lowered IQ among children, deformities and reproductive harm in people and wildlife.
“It’s disgusting that Andrew Wheeler is forcing the EPA to embrace the filthy, pro-pollution agenda of the energy companies that once employed him,” said Connor. “The people living in communities constantly under threat from coal pollution deserve cleaner, safer water, not the threat of increased harm.”