Trump, Pruitt and Coal Companies Will Risk Poisoning Your Water to Save a Few Dollars | Opinion

Updated | The Tennessee Valley Authority's Kingston Fossil Plant disaster in 2008 put coal ash on the national map. An aging and unlined earthen coal ash lagoon collapsed, spilling over a billion gallons of pollutant into the Emory and Clinch rivers and devastating nearby homes and property.

Energy utilities treated that catastrophe as a unique occurrence. Then in 2014, Duke Energy's Dan River coal ash lagoons failed, spewing millions of gallons of polluted water and almost 40,000 tons of coal ash—the toxin-laden waste that is left over when utilities burn coal to produce electricity—into the Dan River in North Carolina and Virginia.

How could this happen? Coal-burning utilities are some of the nation's richest institutions and wield tremendous political influence in the states where they operate. In the Southeast, they are politically-created monopolies that have a lock on the sale of electricity, the most important part of our economies. And they have more engineering expertise than almost any other segment of the economy.

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View of the TVA Kingston Fossil Plant fly ash spill, approximately 1 mile from the retention pond. This view taken on December 27, 2008, is from just off Swan Pond Road. The pile of ash in the photo is 20-25 feet high, and stretches for two miles or so along this inlet (the inlet empties into the Emory River). Brian Stansberry

Yet utilities have chosen the most primitive and irresponsible way to store coal ash. Burning coal produces no waste water, only dry ash. Utilities could have easily trucked their ash uphill away from rivers, lakes, and drinking water reservoirs to safe, dry, lined disposal.

However, just to make things easier for themselves and save some marginal dollars, they chose to create some of the country's most dangerous wastewater by sucking water out of an adjacent river or lake and flushing their coal ash downhill into large earthen pits that they dug next to the waterbody itself.

Instead of building secure concrete dams and lined pits to contain their contamination, they left pits unlined and built only earthen dikes to separate their ash lagoons from our rivers and lakes. Today, these pits are decades old and become more dangerous every day.

Read More: How the EPA's Scott Pruitt Became the Most Dangerous Member of Trump's Cabinet

The EPA adopted a set of minimum national standards in 2015 that for the first time require coal-burning utilities to test groundwater around their decades-old unlined, leaking coal ash pits and publish the results on a website for surrounding communities to see. Those results published on March 2 are striking.

Coal-burning utilities are polluting groundwater across the country with well-known toxins such as arsenic. In addition, radioactive pollution is showing up in our groundwater. If there was ever any doubt, communities across America now know that utilities are polluting their groundwater supplies.

The 2015 EPA standards require utilities to stop groundwater pollution and clean it up, once they document it. But at the last minute, the Trump administration—specifically its EPA—rode in to rescue the coal-burning utilities.

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Aerial photograph of the Kingston Fossil Plant coal fly ash slurry spill, Roane County, Tennessee, December 23, 2008. Tennessee Valley Authority

Read More: EPA Cancels Obama-Era Rules for Coal Ash, A Toxin That Is Worse Than Cigarettes

On the evening of March 1, the day before the groundwater pollution results were made public, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt announced proposals to weaken the groundwater rules to allow politically-influenced state agency heads, and in some instances even the polluter—the utilities themselves—to determine when and how they should clean up their coal ash pollution. The agency even proposed to extend the lives of malfunctioning unlined coal ash lagoons.

Earlier, this EPA took other steps to allow coal ash pollution to continue. It put in place a rule to delay by two years—and perhaps forever—limits on the amounts of arsenic, selenium, mercury, and nitrates that utility coal ash lagoons can dump into the nation's waterways. What government official would choose to be on the side of arsenic and mercury pollution?

And this EPA announced that it is considering a reversal of its longstanding position through administrations of both parties that the Clean Water Act protects us and the nation's waters from coal ash pollution that flows with groundwater from lagoons to our rivers and lakes—something that Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama agreed on.

The Trump administration's embrace of coal ash is especially surprising because in our region, we have seen communities that express support for President Trump also demand greater protections from coal ash. Here in the South, no communities have ever asked for fewer protections from coal ash pollution.

So what is the explanation? The D.C. trade associations and lobbyists that represent powerful fossil-fuel polluters are pushing these changes, and the Trump administration and its EPA are dancing to their tune. Utility trade associations asked Pruitt to change these rules; the heads of coal-burning utilities met personally with Pruitt; and coal-burning utilities and petroleum pipelines are looking for help in Washington because they have been facing, and often losing, enforcement cases brought by local communities to force them to clean up their pollution.

Instead of draining the swamp, this administration jumped in with both feet. It proposes to mire our families and our water supplies in more coal ash pollution. If the utilities and the administration succeed, communities and clean water across the South and the country will suffer and, again, have to fear disasters like the one in Kingston.

Frank Holleman is a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center.

Note: This article was updated to correct a typo in the spelling of Barack Obama.

Trump, Pruitt and Coal Companies Will Risk Poisoning Your Water to Save a Few Dollars | Opinion | Opinion