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Opponents decry Scott Pruitt’s plan to roll back groundwater protections at coal ash sites

EPA holds hearing to get feedback on weakening of coal ash rule.

Heavy machinery excavate and carry coal ash from a drained coal ash pond at Dominion Power's Possum Point Power Station in Dumfries, Virginia. CREDIT: Kate Patterson for The Washington Post via Getty Images
Heavy machinery excavate and carry coal ash from a drained coal ash pond at Dominion Power's Possum Point Power Station in Dumfries, Virginia. CREDIT: Kate Patterson for The Washington Post via Getty Images

Residents have not been clamoring for Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt to weaken the nation’s coal ash waste rules. No local communities have stood up and said they want less protection from coal ash.

And yet Pruitt — at the behest of coal-fired power plant owners — proposed changes in early March to an Obama-era rule that would allow power plant owners to avoid cleaning up their coal ash deposit sites that were found to be leaking and contaminating groundwater.

Coal ash is a byproduct of coal-based power plants that contains toxic materials such as arsenic and lead. Environmental and public health advocates contend 70 percent of coal ash disposal sites disproportionately impact low-income communities.

The planned rollback of the coal ash rule follows a pattern by Pruitt to do the bidding of polluting industries instead of protecting the health of residents.

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The EPA’s proposed changes would allow states to play a bigger role in developing alternatives to the federal requirements. The agency is also seeking public feedback on whether current deadlines for groundwater monitoring and analysis are still appropriate. The agency projects that the draft changes could save the industry overall up to $100 million in compliance costs if made final.

Even though the proposal would represent a major rollback of an important clean water rule, the EPA decided to hold only one public hearing — in Arlington, Virginia, near Washington. Experts and residents from across the nation traveled to the D.C. area on Tuesday to let the EPA officials know why they believe the federal coal ash disposal regulations should not be relaxed.

In his testimony at the public hearing, Frank Holleman, a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, told EPA officials that Pruitt is seeking “to eliminate protections for clean water and communities in order to benefit objectives of the lobbyists and trade associations for coal ash utilities.”

Holleman, in an interview with ThinkProgress after giving his presentation, pointed out that Pruitt proposed the major rollback on March 1, one day before coal plant-owning electric utilities were required to report the results of groundwater testing near their coal ash deposit sites. He believes the announcement was timed to assure utility companies that, if the reversal of the rule is successful, they would not be required to abide by the Obama-era coal regulations.

“We have worked in communities throughout the Southeast, including areas that are very politically conservative and that voted heavily for President Trump. I have never heard a community ask for less protection from coal ash,” Holleman said in his testimony. “There is no call at the local level for this watering down of coal ash protections. These proposals are purely a creation of the Washington special interests.”

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For decades, coal ash — which contains toxic heavy metals like mercury, arsenic, and lead, as well as radioactive elements — was a virtually unregulated waste stream in the United States. Utilities were allowed to dispose of the waste in unlined landfills or earthen pits, and often mixed the coal ash with water to create massive ponds or lagoons located hundreds of feet from homes and communities.

That approach to coal ash began to change in 2008, following the largest coal ash spill in the nation’s history. The spill wiped out 12 homes and sent some 525 million gallons of coal ash into the Tennessee River and surrounding communities near the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Kingston power plant.

Six years later, a 2014 leak at a Duke Energy coal ash disposal site released an estimated 39,000 tons of the hazardous waste, which traveled into the Dan River near Eden, North Carolina.

“In places like Kingston, Tennessee and on the Dan River in North Carolina, we’ve seen the tragedies that coal ash spills and leaks can cause — and they are the reason why, in 2015, after four years of scientific research and public comments, the EPA released a set of basic clean water protections from coal ash that were cheap and easy for utilities to comply with,” Mary Anne Hitt, senior director of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, said Monday on a telephone press briefing ahead of the public hearing.

The EPA finally decided to look into options for regulating the disposal of coal ash. In 2015, the agency put into effect regulations that required power plant owners to test water near their coal ash disposal sites to ensure hazardous chemicals were not leaking into drinking water sources. In addition, a new rule requiring industry to monitor these sites — and clean them up if necessary — went into effect earlier this year.

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But coal plant-owning electric utilities petitioned the EPA for a broad weakening of health and environmental standards. In response, Pruitt’s EPA drafted a rule that seeks to provide states and the industry itself with discretion to weaken core requirements of the 2015 rule that protects groundwater monitoring and the cleanup of contaminated groundwater.

“For decades, power plants have had a free pass to pollute our water and have put the health of downstream communities at risk for far too long,” Rev. Tony Pierce, board president of Illinois People’s Action, an interfaith community organization, said at the public hearing in opposition to Pruitt’s proposed rollback.

The public has until next Monday to comment on the EPA’s proposal. They can submit their comments online.