People Living Near Coal Plants Could Be Drinking 'Toxic' Contaminated Water Until 2028, Thanks to New EPA Ruling

Changes relating to the treatment of waste produced by coal-powered plants and proposed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) earlier this week will not survive the courts, Betsy Southerland, the former director of science and technology for the EPA Office of Water and the woman who wrote the coal combustion residual rule in 2015 told Newsweek.

Instead, their real impact will be to delay the enforcement of protections for vulnerable communities, including people of color and lower income—"We will have lost years of public health and the environment being protected because while the litigation drags on, their rules will be fact," said Southerland.

On Monday, the EPA announced two policy changes related to the management of waste produced by coal-powered plants, one that concerns the treatment of coal ash and one that concerns treatment of toxic wastewater.

The first introduces a deadline requiring plants to stop using unlined ponds by August 31, 2020, but relaxes protections by allowing companies to delay that deadline until 2028. While the second de-regulates rules around two waste streams—flue gas desulfurization (FGD) wastewater, which comes from cleaning the plant's air filters, and bottom ash (BA) transport water, which accumulates at the bottom of the boiler when coal is burned.

In short, the EPA is giving coal-fired power plants much less stringent water requirements, said Southerland. "Both rules mean that the communities around these plants are going to be exposed to a lot more toxic contamination of their drinking water and fisheries through to 2028."

Southerland does not believe the rules will survive litigation—only last year, a judge ruled the 2015 coal combustion residual rule was not sufficiently strict—but says the administration wins "by the virtue of the fact that the litigation is so protracted."

"It takes so many years for these things to find their way through the court system," she added—and while they do, toxic chemicals from plant waste will continue to threaten contaminating local water supplies, meaning the health of people living in communities near plants will remain at risk.

coal plant
Changes to the 2015 rule could leave communities close to plants at risk from wastewater contaminants. Pictured: Gavin Power Plant on September 11, 2019 in Cheshire, Ohio. In 2002, the company that owns the Gavin Power Plant, American Electric Power, reached a settlement with the town's residents for $20 million so they would move and not hold the power plant liable for any health issues. Stephanie Keith/Getty

According to the EPA's own estimates, there are around 1.1 million Americans who live within three miles of a coal plant. Approximately 37.4 million Americans live within 30 miles and could also be at risk from the heavy metals and other contaminants found in plant waste water. Indeed, as it currently stands, as many as 91 percent of plants are leaking "toxic substances" at levels above national safety standards, Earthjustice, an environmental nonprofit, has found.

These "toxic substances" have been linked to various health problems including cancer and neurological problems in children, as well as liver disease, kidney disease and problems associated with breathing and reproduction.

"It is predominantly communities of color and lower income communities that are located to [the plants]", Mustafa Santiago, former head of the EPA's Office of Environmental Justice, told Newsweek. "They are the ones that are getting the initial impacts."

Meanwhile, the economic impact of these proposals are likely to be felt by all taxpayers, he added, not just those living near these plants, who are often uninsured or underinsured. This means paying for medical treatment out of pocket with additional costs to be paid by the taxpayer.

"The EPA justifies these measures as a means of cutting costs for coal utilities, but by loosening rules designed to address pollution, the EPA is in fact transferring the costs of pollution onto the public—both in terms of increased health risk and the many financial costs associated with pollution," Sarah Saadoun, a business and human rights researcher with the Human Rights Watch, told Newsweek.

trump rally
In the past, Trump has told supporters he "saved" coal but the thinktank Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis told Newsweek the weakening of coal ash rules "will likely have little impact on the U.S. utility industry's accelerating shift away from coal power generation." Pictured: US President Donald Trump speaks during a political rally at Charleston Civic Center in Charleston, West Virginia on August 21, 2018. MANDEL NGAN / AFP/Getty

This stands in contrast to the statements made by the EPA Administrator, Andrew Wheeler, earlier this week. According to Wheeler, the proposals will "provide more certainty to the American public."

"These proposed revisions support the Trump Administration's commitment to responsible, reasonable regulations by taking a commonsense approach, which also protects public health and the environment," he said in a statement.

As many have already pointed out, these assertions rely on the assumption that 30 percent of plants will voluntarily adopt stricter practices when it comes to the management of waste. Is this a reasonable assumption? Not so, says Southerland, who believes the chances plants that have not already enforced stricter rules around the treatment of waste doing so in the future, voluntarily, is "probably zero"—a sentiment echoed by Saadoun.

"The EPA finally enacted rules to address this problem in 2015. Why would the EPA now believe that if they removed key parts of those rules, the industry would magically do better than it has in the past?" Saadoun told Newsweek.

Santiago agrees. History has shown that companies have not traditionally dealt with wastewater voluntarily, he said. "Many have done everything they can to be resistant to any additional technologies or actions that would better help people."

"If we were dealing with an entity that was attacking the U.S., we would not rely on business and industry to protect people. We would expect the government to step up and do their responsibilities," he added.

These latest proposals are the EPA's attempt to weaken and deregulate the 2015 rule piecemeal, says Southerland. "They have broken it up into pieces and they're repealing individual pieces with separate rulemaking," she said. "Breaking pieces apart allows you to go faster.

Newsweek has reached out to the American Coal Council for comment.

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