EPA to Relax Obama-era Coal Plant Rule That Could Increase Levels of Toxic Metals in Water Supplies: Report

The EPA is set to move ahead with plans to relax Obama-era regulation requiring coal-fired power plants to meet certain targets when it comes to the management and disposal of industrial waste.

Two sources familiar with the plans told The New York Times that changes to the rules due in November are expected to roll back limits on the "the leaching of dangerous heavy metals like arsenic, lead and mercury."

Critics of the proposal have raised concerns over the public health implications of loosening regulations around the storage of coal ash.

"The EPA is not only selling out the health of the mostly rural communities near coal ash disposal sites but also asking the public to effectively subsidize one of the most significant contributors to climate change," Sarah Saadoun, business and human rights researcher at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement. The statement was made in response to a proposal put forward by the EPA in August to exempt ash piles from the regulations.

"Only utility companies benefit from this rule change," she added. "One way or another, the public will pay the price: with community health, property values, pollution cleanup, and, the climate."

Kingston Fossil Plant
The 2015 rule was introduced in response to a failure at the Kingston Fossil Plant (operated by the Tennessee Valley Authority) in 2008, when a containment pond ruptured and caused a 80-acre mound of coal ash to spill. Pictured: Kingston Fossil Plant. Paul Harris/Getty

More than 100 million tons of CCR (coal combustion residuals) are generated every year—only a third of which are then reused in the form of concrete and other beneficial products.

CCR like fly ash, bottom ash, boiler slag and flue gas desulfurization materials are by-products of the coal combustion process but improper storage in unlined ponds or pits can result in leaks that have been linked to various health problems.

These include an increased risk of cancer, neurological disorders and health complications involving the heart and reproductive organs, the Union of Concerned Scientists warns.

To limit these risks, the Obama administration introduced regulations on the management and disposal of these products, including requirements on power plants to invest in modern water treatment technology and monitor local water quality.

The rule, enacted in 2015, established nationwide limits on levels of CCR allowed in landfills and surface impoundments.

Approximately 1.1 million Americans living within three miles of a coal plant and 37.4 million Americans living within 30 miles are currently protected by the rules, according to the EPA's own estimates.

However, for energy companies, the regulations add "unnecessary burden" and increase the cost of operations. In 2017, the AES Puerto Rico LLP petitioned the EPA, then headed by Scott Pruitt, to exempt coal ash piles from the rule because it "imposes costly, unnecessary and arbitrary burdens."

"Those burdens should be eliminated, consistent with the President's recent Executive Orders directing agencies to reduce the burden of federal regulations," the petition demanded.

The Trump Administration has already stalled the implementation of 2015 act, introducing delays and incorporating "flexibilities", including one 2008 rule the EPA claimed would save $100 million per annum in compliance costs.

"Our actions mark a significant departure from the one-size-fits-all policies of the past and save tens of millions of dollars in regulatory costs," said then-acting EPA Administrator, Andrew Wheeler, at the time.

The changes leaked to the The Times continue a process of loosening industry restrictions. One person said changes to the rule would reduce the area companies must monitor for leaks. A second told the newspaper the changes would actually end up increasing the amount of pollutants removed from the coal production process. But, Lisa Friedman reports, this hinges on the assumption that 30 percent of plants will introduce more rigorous technology—off their own back.

When Newsweek contacted the EPA regarding these claims, a spokesperson said the information given to The Times was incorrect but is yet to confirm whether that means there are no planned changes to the 2015 rule.

As it stands, the industry is failing to meet current safety guidelines. Environmental non-profit EarthJustice has reviewed groundwater monitoring data on more than 550 units from 265 plants, finding 91 percent of plants are leaking "toxic substances" at levels above the national safety standards.

"President Trump has repeatedly touted the need for clean air and water while his administration guts rules to accomplish that," said Saadoun.

The article has been updated to include a comment from an EPA spokesperson and clarify Sarah Saadoun's statement.