Trump’s EPA Says Toxic Ash Ponds Can Stay Open into 2028
More than 50 of the oldest and dirtiest coal-fired electric power plants in America are asking Trump’s EPA for more time to clean up their unsafe coal ash ponds. Some want eight more years.
David Tudor, the CEO and general manager of Associated Electric Cooperative Inc. in Springfield, Mo.,—the owner of two of the worst plants—told the EPA it was the company’s “intent to complete these projects as expeditiously as possible while maintaining the reliability of the power system.”
An estimated 523 leaking, unstable or dangerously placed coal ash ponds, including the Missouri cooperative’s ponds at Thomas Hill and New Madrid, were scheduled to stop receiving toxic coal waste on Oct. 31. But the Trump EPA pushed that back to April 11, 2021, and told plants they could ask for extensions until 2023, 2024 and even 2028.
Tudor met with Trump’s first EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt, in April 2017 when Pruitt and other EPA officials visited the Thomas Hill plant near Clifton Hill, Mo. Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) and then Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley, now also a Missouri senator, toured the plant with Pruitt.
Groundwater monitoring has found unsafe levels of sulfate, lithium, cobalt and arsenic at Thomas Hill. Unsafe levels of boron, cobalt, molybdenum, lithium and arsenic are in the groundwater at the New Madrid plant along the banks of the Mississippi River near New Madrid, Mo.
Democratic senators asked for an ethics investigation of Elizabeth “Tate” Bennett, then an EPA associate administrator, after the meeting at Thomas Hill. Bennett previously was a lobbyist for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association. She currently works at Trump’s White House as an agriculture adviser.
Andrew Wheeler, the current EPA administrator and former coal company lobbyist, used decisions in two federal court cases to rewrite federal regulations to benefit utilities. Power plants can now ask for more time to close unlined, leaking coal ash ponds if they claim they can’t develop more storage space or if they have shut down a coal-fired boiler.
Coal-burning power plants produce about 100 million tons of coal ash a year. Arsenic, lead and mercury lace the ash. Companies mixed the ash with water and stored it in unlined pits called coal ash ponds, often near lakes or rivers.
A coal ash rule written under former President Barack Obama allowed power companies to put coal ash in unlined ponds indefinitely until their operators determined they were leaking. Federal judges threw that out in a 2018 decision, Utility Solid Waste Activities Group v. EPA.
The Trump EPA estimated that the enforcement delays would save utilities about $26.1 million a year. But the EPA didn’t look at the cost of environmental damage or health risks associated with delays in cleaning up the coal ash ponds.
Isabel Carey and Jason Schwartz at the Institute for Policy Integrity said the EPA’s failure to consider those costs meant the rule violates the Administrative Procedure Act, the 1946 law signed by President Harry S Truman that governs how federal agencies write new rules.
About 41% of power plants with coal ash dumps is in the Midwest. Another third is in the southeast, and about 10% is in the Southwest.
Featured image: Kingston, Tenn., ash spill in 2008. Photo by John L. Wathen, Southwings