Scott Pruitt says EPA will reconsider rule safeguarding communities from coal ash

No surprise: Pruitt finds industry petitions convincing.

This Dec. 22, 2008 photo shows the aftermath of the worst coal ash spill in U.S. history.  A retention pond wall collapsed at the Tennessee Valley Authority's Kingston coal plant in Tennessee. CREDIT: AP Photo/Wade Payne,
This Dec. 22, 2008 photo shows the aftermath of the worst coal ash spill in U.S. history. A retention pond wall collapsed at the Tennessee Valley Authority's Kingston coal plant in Tennessee. CREDIT: AP Photo/Wade Payne,

The Environmental Protection Agency plans to “reconsider” portions of a 2015 rule that provides safeguards for communities located near toxic coal ash waste sites, agency administrator Scott Pruitt said Wednesday in a letter to industry officials.

The clean water protections that Pruitt now wants to revisit marked the first substantive steps the EPA has taken to protect the public from coal ash, according to the Sierra Club. Pruitt’s decision “jeopardizes the safety of those communities that depend on waterways and groundwater supplies near where coal ash pits are located,” the environmental group said Thursday.

Coal ash has high levels of toxic heavy metals like arsenic, mercury, and lead, which can cause serious health problems, including cancer, kidney disease, reproductive problems, and birth defects.

The EPA administrator sent the letter only days after Hurricanes Irma and Harvey plowed through regions of the United States with a large number of coal ash dumps. Fortunately, none of the coal ash sites in the Southeast or Texas was damaged or spilled as a result of either hurricane.

AES Puerto Rico and the Utility Solid Waste Activities Group — an industry group whose members include electric utility associations and hundreds of electric utilities — filed petitions in May challenging the rule. “After reviewing your petitions, I have decided that it is appropriate and in the public interest to reconsider the provisions of the final rule addressed in your petitions, in light of the issues raised in your petitions,” Pruitt wrote in his letter.

In its court petition, the Utility Solid Waste Activities Group asked, among other things, that deadlines in the rule be pushed back. In its petition, AES cited Puerto Rico’s economic problems as a reason to reduce the “significant burdens” the rule would impose on it for the on-site storage of coal ash.

In Puerto Rico, an AES coal-fired power plant disposes of its waste in a five-story-high ash pile. Days before Irma hit the island, Puerto Rico’s Environmental Quality Board ordered the operator to cover the ash pile to protect against hurricane-force winds spreading toxic dust and creating contaminated run-off, Earthjustice’s Diane Carman wrote Tuesday in blog post. Irma reportedly did not cause damage or spread any of the coal ash at the Puerto Rico site.

Pruitt’s decision comes ahead of opening arguments in a court case contesting the rule in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. The court has scheduled oral argument for October 17 in the industry challenge to the rule. The EPA is likely to ask the court to place the case on hold while it reconsiders the rule.

Pruitt’s letter “is widely considered to be a ploy to scrap the protections entirely — benefiting coal plant owners eager to avoid accountability for the substantial public health dangers their coal ash pits pose to communities living near them,” the Sierra Club said.

Florida has 12 coal-fired power plants produce about 9 billion pounds of coal ash a year. This toxic ash typically is stored in earthen dams near water, making surrounding neighborhoods vulnerable during flooding and storm surges. Power plants in Texas produce millions of tons of coal ash that often ends up in landfills and waste ponds across Texas.