ThinkProgress

Pruitt grants home state coal ash regulation powers, enraging environmentalists

Coal ash pond. CREDIT: Astrid Riecken For The Washington Post via Getty Images

Environmental organizations and activists slammed the Trump administration’s decision to grant Oklahoma the nation’s first-ever permit to regulate coal ash, citing the state’s lackluster oversight record. Critics also expressed concern that the move would put residents in danger and expose them to cancerous toxins.

Oklahoma received the green light on its efforts to self-regulate coal ash in the state on Monday, in a victory for utilities and conservative lawmakers in Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) head Scott Pruitt’s home state. The dangerous substance produced by burning coal has long served as a source of ire for environmentalists, who criticize the weak federal regulations overseeing its handling.

The state has long fought for the right to regulate its own coal ash. The Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality (ODEQ) has regulated coal ash for over 20 years using federal rules, something Monday’s announcement changes. Now, the state will be completely in charge and able to set its own rules.

Pruitt lauded the “historic” news and emphasized in a statement that it “places oversight of coal ash disposal into the hands of those who are best positioned to oversee coal ash management: the officials who have intimate knowledge of the facilities and the environment in their state.”

Oklahoma utility companies seemed to share Pruitt’s view, welcoming the decision. But activists offered a starkly different response. Earthjustice attorney Jennifer Cassel announced that the nonprofit would be suing over the decision.

“Pruitt knows full well that the only thing that will happen is for the toxic contamination from coal ash to get worse. Already the coal-fired power plants are violating state and federal rules on coal ash,” Cassel said in a statement. “And yet, [Pruitt] has approved a program that keeps coal ash management behind closed doors and allows his polluter buddies to self-regulate, leaving the fox guarding the henhouse.”

Earthjustice has filed 95 lawsuits other lawsuits against the Trump administration relating to environmental issues. Along with the Environmental Integrity Project, Earthjustice released new analysis on Monday that found all of the Oklahoma coal ash dumps generated by coal-fired plants that adhered to federal groundwater testing rules yielded toxic contamination results in the water.

Johnson Grimm-Bridgwater, who directs the Sierra Club’s Oklahoma chapter, said that the decision would be dangerous for Oklahomans, exposing them to toxins.

“Fresh looks at groundwater data show that coal ash in Oklahoma is polluting the state’s groundwater with toxic chemicals, as communities like Bokoshe, Oklahoma already know firsthand,” he told ThinkProgress via email Tuesday morning, citing one particularly vulnerable area in the state.

Grimm-Bridgwater said that his organization would be legally challenging the move along with other groups including Earthjustice.

“ODEQ,” he emphasized, “has gone on record that they are opposed to citizen suits, so it is clear that such an agency is NOT the entity best suited to take care of Oklahomans on this issue.”

As Grimm-Bridgwater noted, ODEQ has suffered from steep budget cuts, in addition to a reduction in staff, something that will likely impact efforts to enforce coal ash regulations. Moreover, under Oklahoma’s state program regulating coal ash, disposal involving movement to abandoned coal mines and pits isn’t covered, leaving many areas vulnerable to toxins.

Coal ash contains poisons like arsenic and lead in addition to other cancerous agents. The substance has also been found to contain high levels of radioactivity.

Coal ash historically went unregulated until a 2008 disaster at the Kingston Fossil Plant in Tennessee, which exposed residents to 1 billion gallons of coal ash. But environmental advocates have criticized present-day EPA coal ash regulations, arguing they don’t go far enough in holding companies accountable.

An Obama-era law allows states to regulate coal ash themselves on the condition that their regulations are found to be as stringent as those of the federal government. In September 2017, Pruitt granted an industry petition seeking a reconsideration of parts of that rule, a month after allowing states to submit their own associated programs to the EPA for approval.

Oklahoma’s environmental agencies have a track record of ties to industry, a history that involves Pruitt. As state attorney general, Pruitt maintained close relationships with fossil fuel companies as well as electric utilities. State agencies have also been accused of lax oversight when it comes to industry behavior, particularly coal ash compliance.

The approval granted to Oklahoma will take effect 30 days after publication in the Federal Register. While Oklahoma is the first state in the country to receive a permit from the EPA, other states may soon follow, including Georgia, which has a similar petition pending before the agency.