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Polluters Ask Trump Administration to Cut Safeguards for Nation’s No. 2 Toxic Pollution Threat

Coal ash waste linked to cancer, heart disease, stroke, brain damage
A cloud of toxic coal ash is seen blowing like a sandstorm straight at the homes on the Moapa River Reservation.

A cloud of toxic coal ash is seen blowing like a sandstorm straight at the homes on the Moapa River Reservation.

Photo provided by Moapa Band of Paiutes
May 12, 2017
Washington, D.C. —

Dangerous piles of industrial waste laced with lead, arsenic, mercury and other toxics will continue to threaten communities all over America if the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency grants a legal petition that industrial polluters filed today.

The polluters’ Petition for Reconsideration seeks to do away with most of the EPA’s environmental safeguards for coal ash, which is the toxic waste left over from coal-burning power plants. For decades, coal ash was dumped into giant pits, where toxins can seep into water and soil and blow into the air. In October 2015, the first-ever EPA safeguards to protect communities near coal ash dumps went into effect.  The EPA’s protections address toxic dust and the stability of the dams that confine dumped coal ash. The agency also set standards to prevent, detect and clean up toxic leaks from the dumps.

“These dumps should have been cleaned up decades ago,” said Earthjustice attorney Lisa Evans. “The new EPA safeguards were finally starting to make progress in protecting people from what is now the nation’s second-biggest industrial waste problem.  Cutting back protections at this point would be reckless and would put people’s health at risk. Americans should simply not stand for these industrial polluters trying to weasel out of their responsibility to clean up their toxic messes.”

The EPA safeguards to protect the public from the toxic waste finally went into effect after Earthjustice filed a lawsuit on behalf of public advocacy groups and a Native American tribe, the Moapa Band of Paiutes. The EPA received more than a half-million comments from people supporting the safeguards. 

Map of coal ash contaminated sites, and high and significant hazard dams.

Today, over 1,400 coal ash waste dumps are spread across the nation, and in at least 200 cases, the toxic waste is known to have contaminated water sources. Coal ash waste is filled with some of some of the deadliest known toxins, including arsenic, lead, mercury and chromium. The toxics raise the risk for cancer, heart disease, and stroke, and can inflict lasting brain damage on children. About 70 percent of the toxic dumps are located in low-income areas.

“Without these safeguards, these massive waste dumps are operated for their lifespan and then closed largely away from public eyes,” said Andrew Rehn, Water Resources Engineer for the Prairie Rivers Network. “Our state, Illinois, does not have a state rule for coal ash, so the federal rule is the only way the public has any say in the process of closing a coal ash impoundment—which could leave coal ash in our floodplains and groundwater forever.”

The devastating coal ash spill at Kingston, TN in December 2008. One billion gallons of toxic coal ash spilled from the Tennessee Valley Authority's Kingston Fossil Plant, covering 300 acres, destroying homes, poisoning rivers and contaminating coves and residential drinking waters.
Courtesy of United Mountain Defense
The devastating coal ash spill at Kingston, TN in December 2008. One billion gallons of toxic coal ash spilled from the Tennessee Valley Authority's Kingston Fossil Plant, covering 300 acres, destroying homes, poisoning rivers and contaminating coves and residential drinking waters.

Federal protections are critical, because the dumps are ticking time bombs. In 2008, the single-largest toxic waste spill in U.S. history happened when a billion gallons of coal ash sludge burst through a dam at the Tennessee Valley Authority Kingston plant and destroyed 300 acres and dozens of homes. In 2014, a drainage pipe collapsed at a coal ash dump in North Carolina, fouling 80 miles of the Dan River with toxic sludge.

“The group of polluters that is now asking EPA to roll back coal ash regulations includes convicted criminals that are still on probation because of their negligent coal ash management,” said Pete Harrison, an attorney for Waterkeeper Alliance. “The industry's track record includes a long list of colossal spills, environmental damage, and drinking water contamination. If anything, EPA needs to strengthen coal ash safeguards, not weaken them.”

The toxic coal ash turned the Dan River gray for 20 miles east of the North Carolina border in the aftermath of a spill in February 2014.
Courtesy of Waterkeeper Alliance
The toxic coal ash turned the Dan River gray for 20 miles east of the North Carolina border in the aftermath of a spill in February 2014.

The petition to abandon the EPA’s coal ash safeguards was filed by the Utilities Solid Waste Activities Group, a trade organization that has long fought against the common-sense pollution protections for coal ash dumps.

“Coal ash is a toxic and dangerous byproduct of burning coal that shouldn't be anywhere near our drinking water sources, but this latest polluter petition is essentially asking the EPA to turn a blind eye to the very real risks it poses to families living near coal plants by "reconsidering" standards to protect the public,” said Dalal Aboulhosn, the Sierra Club’s Deputy Legislative Director for Land and Water. “It's appalling that polluters are pushing to roll back these public health safeguards, given our nation's long history of catastrophic coal ash spills and drinking water contaminated by coal plant pollution. Science and safety must guide EPA's policy, not the bottom lines of polluters trying to avoid accountability. The EPA must side with our communities when it comes to ensuring safe drinking water for families across our country and we will do everything we can to make sure it does.”

In their petition, the polluters ask the EPA for relief from groundwater monitoring requirements, which means that the public will continue to be kept in the dark about ongoing water pollution and companies won’t have to shut down their impoundments or clean up their mess.  The groundwater monitoring and corrective action requirements are scheduled to go into effect October 17, 2017.  The petition also asks the EPA to repeal requirements related to inactive surface impoundments, even though the Dan River coal ash spill was at an inactive coal plant and older, inactive units are just as dangerous as active units, if not more so.

“Industrial polluters already got the federal rule they wanted two and a half years ago, and this late attempt to further weaken the rules governing disposal of toxic coal ash is irresponsible and dangerous for people and the environment,” said Lisa Hallowell, Senior Attorney with the Environmental Integrity Project. “We need to be increasing safeguards, not lining polluters' pockets.”

Tim Maloney, senior policy director for the Hoosier Environmental Council, added: “The EPA's safeguards are a modest requirement for electric utilities to follow in limiting the environmental damage from decades of irresponsible coal ash disposal practices. The polluters’ efforts to further roll back common-sense oversight is a clear admission that America's power companies wish to escape responsibility for the serious pollution they've created.”

In response to this petition, the EPA could lift safeguards and delay critical compliance deadlines that are essential to protecting the health of communities near coal-fired power plants. This includes delaying testing for water contamination, taking measures to cleanup poisoned drinking water, and closing leaking dumps that are releasing hazardous chemicals.

“It's not surprising that a greedy polluting industry is looking to the Trump administration to put its interests and profits ahead of public health,” said Jennifer Peters, National Water Programs Director for Clean Water Action. “EPA's standards for toxic coal ash disposal were modest, and any delay in enforcing these critical safeguards endangers communities near coal ash dumps and the people who rely on drinking water sources that are threatened by contamination from these unstable, leaky sites.”

Contacts

Lisa Evans, Earthjustice, (978) 548-8645

Pete Harrison, Waterkeeper Alliance, (828) 582-0422

Dalal Aboulhosn, Sierra Club, (202) 675-6278

Michael Kelly, Clean Water Action (202) 393-5449

Tom Pelton, Environmental Integrity Project, (443) 510-2574

Andrew Rehn, Prairie Rivers Network, (217) 344-2371, ext. 208

Tim Maloney, Hoosier Environmental Council, (812) 369-8677