President Donald Trump loves talking about “clean coal.” He talked about it as a candidate, claiming in a presidential debate in October of 2016 that “there is a thing called clean coal.” He’s talked about it a bunch as president, often calling it “beautiful, clean coal.” In his first State of the Union address, he triumphantly proclaimed that his administration’s policies have “ended the war on clean coal.” In total, Trump has talked about “clean coal” 40 times since announcing his candidacy for president in June of 2015.
Set aside, for a moment, the fact that the Trump administration’s own Department of Energy concluded last summer that the coal industry’s recent decline has been the result of increased automation in mining and cheap natural gas, not a regulatory “war on coal.”
Set aside, as well, the fact that Trump seems to think that “clean coal” is coal that is extracted and literally cleaned before its burned (most people use “clean coal” to refer to the practice of reducing pollution when coal is burned, and capturing carbon emissions associated with coal power).
The reality is that the Trump administration isn’t working to make coal cleaner — if anything, its policies have made coal dirtier and more dangerous to public health and the environment.
One of the first pieces of legislation that Trump signed as president overturned the Stream Protection Rule, which updated existing mining regulations by requiring mining companies to monitor pollution levels in streams near surface mines. It also required companies to establish a 100-foot buffer zone between surface mines and nearby streams. If the rule had gone into effect, it would have protected 6,000 miles of streams over two decades, areas that are home to some 171 species proposed or listed under the Endangered Species Act, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The Stream Protection Rule was put in place to protect waterways from a type of coal mining known as mountaintop removal mining, where companies remove peaks of mountains to gain access to seams of coal below. Numerous studies have shown that the practice poses a threat to public health, with rates of cancer in communities with mountaintop removal mining nearly double that of places without the practice. But in August, the Trump administration abruptly suspended a study on the health impacts of mountaintop removal mining by the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine. This prompted concern that Trump’s attempts to spur coal production would take place in an environment void of information about the health impacts of increased production.
But the Trump administration’s policies are making coal more dangerous for communities outside of the mountains of Appalachia, as well. In September, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt announced that the agency would begin reconsidering federal regulations on the disposal of coal ash, the toxic waste product created from burning coal. Coal ash is the second-largest stream of industrial waste in the country, and has been unregulated at the federal level for decades. Utilities have often dealt with coal ash by storing it in unlined pits known as “ponds” — and those ponds have, at times, breached, sending toxic waste into nearby streams. In 2008, for instance, a pond at the Kingston Fossil in Tennessee spilled more than 1 billion gallons of coal ash into waterways, causing levels of toxic chemicals in nearby communities to spike. But unlined ponds can also leach toxins from coal ash — heavy metals like lead or radioactive materials — into groundwater. Some residents of North Carolina living near a Duke Energy-operated power plant have been using bottled water for more than 1,000 days, for instance, after concerns about coal ash contaminated groundwater.
In addition to reconsidering federal regulation of coal ash disposal, the Trump administration is also looking to shift responsibility for regulating coal ash to states. But environmental groups worry that state environmental agencies — which, throughout the country, have seen budget cuts in recent years — aren’t funded or staffed to well enough to properly enforce coal ash disposal.
Under the Trump administration, regulations placing stricter limits on the amount of mercury coal-fired power plants can emit into the air are also being reconsidered. The rule, known as the Mercury and Air Toxics Standard (MATS), was expected to prevent 11,000 premature deaths every year associated with air pollution. But the Trump administration has signaled that it may not support the rule in legal challenges from industry.
The administration is also reviewing a rule issued in 2014 by the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) meant to reduce the amount of coal dust that coal miners are exposed to. The rule sought to protect miners from black lung, the blanket term for respiratory diseases associated with inhaling too much coal dust. Black lung has made a comeback in recent years, with rates among mine workers doubling since 1997 according to the Charleston Gazette-Mail.
All of this is to say Trump hasn’t ended the war on “clean coal” — he’s escalated the war on making coal cleaner.