Clean water advocates tell Trump administration to ‘stop pandering to polluters’

“It’s not a left thing. It’s not a right thing. It’s a people thing.”

Environmental advocates call on EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt to value clean water over the financial health of the coal industry. CREDIT: AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar
Environmental advocates call on EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt to value clean water over the financial health of the coal industry. CREDIT: AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Environmental leaders testified at the Environmental Protection Agency’s headquarters on Monday in opposition to the Trump administration’s proposed delay of an Obama-era rule that limits the amount of toxic pollution power plant operators can discharge into stream, rivers, and lakes.

Before the final rule was published in November 2015, the guidelines for power plant toxic discharges had not been updated for more than 30 years. The previous standards allowed coal plants to release billions of pounds of contaminated wastewater directly into streams, rivers, and lakes every year. In June, the Trump administration proposed delaying the compliance dates, explaining they would be postponed until the EPA “completes reconsideration of the 2015 rule.”

The administration should “stop pandering to polluters with deep pockets and do their job of protecting local water supplies from industrial coal sludge that is spewing out of power plants across our country,” Mary Anne Hitt, director of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Program, said Monday at a press conference in Washington, D.C.

Electric plants dump 64,400 pounds of lead, 2,820 pounds of mercury, 79,200 pounds of arsenic, and 1,970,000 pounds of aluminum into the country’s waterways every year. Some of these pollutants, including arsenic, are known carcinogens, while others, such as lead, have been linked to developmental and reproductive health problems. This pollution has also been linked to fish die-offs, the EPA explained in 2015.

Coal plants are the largest source of toxic water pollution in the nation. The metals and other chemicals in their wastewater can cause severe health problems like cancer, lowered IQ among children, and deformities. The toxins also harm wildlife living in and around the contaminated water.

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt said the proposed delay, if finalized, will give the administration time to “carefully consider the next steps for this regulation.” The decision is designed “to protect the environment, jobs and affordable, reliable energy,” Pruitt said.

On Monday, the EPA held a public hearing on Pruitt’s decision to delay compliance deadlines for the strengthened rules protecting against coal plant wastewater dumping. “Trump and Pruitt have systemically been working with polluters to loosen and ultimately we believe eliminate protections that safeguard our communities from this industrial wastewater,” Hitt said.

Sarah McCoin, a Tennessee resident who lives about a mile from the Kingston coal ash spill in 2008, the largest in U.S. history, said the 2015 rule should not be a political issue. “It’s not a left thing. It’s not a right thing. It’s a people thing,” she said.

Describing the new 2015 rule as offering “reasonable safety and public health guidelines,” McCoin said that “power companies have had 30 to 35 years to dump mercury, arsenic, selenium and other toxics — basically the periodic table — into the rivers without any control.”

Prior to the Trump administration, Sam Perkins, program director at the Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation in North Carolina, said the nation was moving in the right direction in cleaning up the toxic waste from coal plants. “I would implore the EPA to continue moving in that right direction to force utilities to keep their own contaminants on their own sites and continue to not just keep the [effluent limitations guidelines] rules we passed in 2015, but to build upon them,” he said.

Two coal-fired power plants — the Marshall and Allen facilities, both owned by Duke Energy — discharge their wastewater upstream of the drinking water intakes of the vast majority of the 2 million people who live in the Catawba River basin, Perkinis said.

Under the Clean Water Act, power plants and other companies must apply for a permit to discharge pollutants into waterways. The permits have to be renewed every five years. Power plant operators have been preparing to comply with the 2015 rule between 2018 and 2023, depending on when they need a new Clean Water Act permit.

Since the EPA proposed the delay in complying with the guidelines, some states and utilities have pulled back on preparing to limit the amount of toxins in their wastewater. Utilities that were planning to clean up polluting facilities are now putting those plans on hold while they wait to see the fate of the rule, according to Hitt. “That’s very troublesome for us,” she said.

In Maryland, for example, environmental regulators are now backing away from strengthening the limits on toxic discharges from power plants, given the uncertainty caused by the EPA’s plan to delay implementation of the 2015 rule, Phillip Musegaas, vice president of programs and litigation for the Potomac Riverkeeper Network, told reporters after the press conference.

In Waukegan, Illinois, a coal plant owned by NRG Energy discharges more than 8 million gallons of water pollution, including coal ash wastewater, every day directly into Lake Michigan, Dulce Ortiz, a member of the Clean Power Lake County Campaign of Waukegan, said at the press conference.

“If Donald Trump refuses to protect our communities, it’s up our states and local municipalities to take action,” she said.