Coal-Burning Power Plants Find a Friend at the EPA
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Coal-Burning Power Plants Find a Friend at the EPA

As Memories of a 2008 Disaster Fade, Pruitt Reconsiders Tough Coal-Ash Regulation

While the world gasps at Trump’s blustery exit from the Paris Climate Agreement, which will take four years to actually do, his Environmental Protection Agency head Scott Pruitt is removing the safeguards on our air and water.

This time, Pruitt has put the brakes on compliance to the regulation of coal-ash waste while his agency considers rescinding the rule altogether. The regulation, known as Effluent Limitations Guidelines and Standards for the Steam Electric Power Generating Point Source Category Rule (ELG), went into effect in November 2015, with compliance expected to begin three years later.

The EPA says coal ash is one of the largest types of industrial waste generated in the U.S. Coal-burning power plants produced 130 million tons of it in 2014, according to the American Coal Ash Association. Power companies have been burning coal for energy for decades and throwing the waste into ponds and pits next to waterways and communities. But the Clean Water Act and the specific regulations of the ELG marked the first time federal limits of these toxins from coal-ash waste were imposed on the steam electric power plants that produced it.

That law also marked the first time power plants were held accountable on a federal level to inform communities of what kind of pollution comes out of these landfills and coal-ash ponds, a term that is almost quaint, considering they can be acres upon acres of toxic sludge containing arsenic and high levels of mercury and lead, to name a few contaminants.

The rule also empowered citizens to sue companies within the environmental laws to get some kind of cleanup and help from the coal power plant companies who have caused the pollution, Dalal Aboulhosn, Legislative Director for Land and Water at The Sierra Club, told DCReport.

Communities living with coal-ash waste not properly handled have seen increases in several forms of cancer, strokes and respiratory diseases. And in many places, they have also watched their home values reduced to zero as a direct result of the pollution, Aboulhosn said.

Just before Obama first took office, the Kingston, Tenn., coal-ash catastrophe erupted. That disaster saw the Emory River flooded with a billion gallons of coal-ash sludge when a dike holding back an 84-acre coal-ash pond ruptured.

Obama put forth two different rulings for coal ash; one that classified it as a hazardous waste, and a lesser rule treating it as something that you’d throw in your waste basket, Aboulhosn said. And that’s the rule that stuck.

Kingston, Tenn., ash spill. Photo by John L. Wathen, Southwings

ACTION BOX / What you can do about it

Contact the EPA and tell Scott Pruitt our health is more important than the profits of power plants. Call Pruitt at 202-564-4700. Contact the Small Business Administration Office of Advocacy at 202-205-6533.

And speak your mind to our elected officials. Contact your own representative and senators.

The Sierra Club maintains a coal-ash database here.

It has amounted to very rudimentary technologies we use on stuff like garbage landfills, she said. The polluters now have to line new pits, monitor waterways and inspect new sites where they put the coal ash.

The polluters don’t want to have to pay to comply with regulations, even modest ones. So back in late March, the Utility Water Act Group (UWAG), a consortium of 163 energy companies and three national trade associations of energy companies, petitioned Pruitt and the EPA to reconsider this rule, claiming high costs and potential loss of jobs.

On April 5, the Small Business Administration Office of Advocacy submitted its own petition for the EPA to rethink the rule and compliance deadlines, stating the rule’s technology-based standards to control wastewater would “impose expensive costs that outweigh benefits”. The EPA estimated that about 12% of steam power plants would incur some costs and that costs for compliance would total around $550 million annually. But compliance would reduce coal-ash waste produced by these plants by 1.4 billion pounds annually and trim 57 billion pounds of water withdrawal.

Major coal-ash accidents, 2006 to present. Sierra Club graphic

Just a few days after receiving the petitions, Pruitt wrote both petitioners promising the agency would reconsider the rule, saying it was in the public’s interest to do so. And on May 25, the EPA filed official notice that it would postpone the compliance dates, slated to begin November 2018, while the agency considered rescinding the regulation.

When the rule went into effect two years ago, a coalition of power utilities challenged it in the court and those petitions are still under consideration by the US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. The EPA said it has issued an administrative stay to the compliance dates while litigation is ongoing.

“I think we can fully expect Mr. Pruitt to look to roll back the modest gains the communities living with this pollution gained in the rule,” Aboulhosn said. “It paints the larger picture of how this EPA head is more concerned with what industry wants than what is best for our communities, air, water and health.”

Meanwhile, the EPA has dismantled the link on its Website to information on proposed water regulations on power plant discharges. The rest of the site’s robust information on coal ash still exists.

June 6, 2017