EPA Wants Coal Plants to Use More Arsenic-laden Waste That Could Pollute Water, Activists Warn: 'A Disgrace to Everything the EPA Stands For'

The Environmental Protection Agency filed a new proposal on Tuesday which would scrap restrictions on the use of arsenic-loaded waste from coal power plants, raising fears among environmental groups that water and food supplies may be contaminated.

Coal ash is left over after the fossil fuel is burned in power plants. It is full of many dangerous substances, including arsenic, which can cause serious health problems if allowed to leak into water supplies.

Coal ash has several industrial uses, hence the EPA's decision to try and ease restrictions on the waste. It is largely used as a replacement for soil, employed in construction projects or as a protective cover over hazardous landfill sites.

An EPA statement said the "sensible changes" would encourage "beneficial use" of coal ash. This term is used to describe new uses for what would otherwise be industrial waste, The Hill explained.

The changes would lift restrictions, introduced in 2015, limiting coal ash use to 12,400 tons per site. Currently, if a user exceeds this limit, they must conduct an environmental demonstration. The EPA now wants to replace the limit with location-based criteria to inform the decision as to how much coal ash can be used.

The new proposal would only require users to file a demonstration showing that the project won't cause harm if it is close to water supplies, for example groundwater or wetlands. Once that is approved, they will be able to use as much coal ash as they please.

But if such demonstrations prove insufficient, the EPA proposal raises the possibility of coal ash-related toxins leaking into water and contaminating surrounding areas.

EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said the proposed changes "will further responsible management of coal ash while protecting human health and the environment."

Environmental groups disagree. Lisa Evans, senior counsel for the Earthjustice non-profit, said: "Despite compelling and damning scientific evidence highlighting the harm to groundwater from coal ash, and court victories by community groups requiring the EPA to strengthen the 2015 rule, Wheeler is giving this gift to his former employers at the cost of public health.

"It is a disgrace to everything the EPA stands for, and we will do everything in our power to stop it," Evans said in a joint statement from Earthjustice and the Sierra Club.

The statement described the proposal as part of the EPA's "ongoing effort to gut landmark safeguards that protect public health and the environment from toxic coal ash pollution by weakening safeguards for coal ash piles and sites where coal ash is placed on or beneath the ground."

Evans told The Hill that the location-based criteria proposed by the EPA "doesn't have to be defended to any regulatory agency or be posted for public notice or be written by any engineer or environmental professional… You've got a fairly meaningless demo having to be created."

Lisa Hallowell, the senior attorney at the Environmental Integrity Project, said the proposal was "clearly a political move." She said the EPA "in a deep bow to industry's wishes," is trying to lift "safeguards meant to protect nearby residents from contamination and lifting the floodgates for more coal ash to be dumped in an unsafe way."

Arsenic is one of the most potent toxic elements contained in coal ash. According to Physicians for Social Responsibility—the largest U.S. physician-led organization working to protect the public from environmental toxins and other threats—high doses of arsenic can cause bladder cancer, skin cancer, kidney cancer and lung cancer.

Long-term exposure to the element can lead to death. And even at low doses, arsenic exposure can cause cause irregular heartbeats, nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, peripheral neuropathy and vision impairment.

Other toxins in coal ash include lead, cadmium, chromium, mercury, boron, molybdenum, silica, selenium and thallium. All carry their own health risks related to exposure, ranging from nausea and vomiting to heightened risks of various cancer and subsequent death.

Wheeler was confirmed as EPA head in February 2019. Environmental groups lamented his appointment, given Wheeler's background as a coal industry lobbyist. Wheeler replaced predecessor Scott Pruitt, who resigned while facing numerous ethics controversies.

coal ash, arsenic, pollution, EPA
This file photo taken on February 28, 2017 shows ash being disposed outside a coal burning electrical power plant near Tuzlak, Bosnia. ELVIS BARUKCIC/AFP/Getty