The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) signed yesterday the first rule of its two-part rulemaking to weaken the first-ever federal regulations that provide health and environmental safeguards for communities near toxic coal ash waste dumps. The coal ash (Coal Combustion Residuals, or CCR) rule was made public this morning.
The new rule:
- Fails to add boron, a common and dangerous coal ash contaminant, to the list of pollutants that will drive cleanup of groundwater at contaminated sites nationwide.
- Weakens drinking water protection standards for several hazardous chemicals, namely lead, cobalt, lithium and molybdenum.
- Extends compliance deadlines for closing unlined leaking ash ponds and ash ponds within five feet of groundwater and permits hundreds of leaking ponds to continue to operate.
- Permits state officials to terminate groundwater monitoring.
- Allows state officials to judge whether sites are following the rules instead of qualified, professional engineers.
All of these changes significantly weaken the protections established in 2015. Every single one of the changes is in response to an industry petition filed with the Trump administration in 2017.
Coal ash is the toxic waste left over from hundreds of coal-burning power plants throughout the United States. For decades, coal ash has been dumped into giant pits, where toxic chemicals seep into water and blow into the air. Coal ash waste is filled with some of some of the deadliest known toxic chemicals, including heavy metals like arsenic, lead, mercury and chromium. The toxics raise the risk for cancer, heart disease, and stroke, and can inflict permanent brain damage on children.
“Today’s rule indicates Wheeler is continuing EPA’s radical drive to remove critical health protections at the behest of industry,” said Earthjustice attorney Lisa Evans. “This is the first major rule signed during Andrew Wheeler’s time running the EPA, and his true colors are shining through. Wheeler is ignoring the serious health threats to hundreds of communities at risk from contaminated drinking water.”
“This indefensible gutting of our nation’s first-ever coal ash pollution control rule cements the shameful environmental legacy of the Trump administration,” said Lisa Hallowell, senior attorney with the Environmental Integrity Project. “Today’s action opens the door for weakened monitoring and cleanup standards, which means — in no uncertain terms — that the public and the environment on which we all depend will be in harm’s way.”
In October 2015, the first-ever EPA safeguards to protect communities near coal ash dumps went into effect after Earthjustice filed a lawsuit on behalf of public interest 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 that the EPA gutted today.
EPA is finalizing this rollback of coal ash protections just as the nation is discovering that nearly all coal ash ponds and landfills are leaking toxic pollutants to groundwater. The EPA’s 2015 coal ash rule required utilities to test the water near their coal ash dumps to make sure hazardous chemicals were not leaking into drinking water sources. Coal ash contains concentrated levels of heavy metals, which are released to water when the ash is dumped into unlined pits. According to recently released industry data, about 95 percent of all the dump sites have contaminated groundwater with toxins like arsenic and boron to levels the EPA has deemed unsafe to drink.
We now know that the coal ash dumps are leaking, but EPA is looking the other way. Requirements to close these leaking dump sites and to clean up poisoned water were set to go into effect later in 2018, but the new rule weakens cleanup standards and pushes closure and cleanup dates to 2020.
“We will not stand by and allow the Trump administration to give carte blanche to well-funded polluters that threaten the water of thousands of communities across our country with their toxic coal ash,” said Dalal Aboulhosn, Sierra Club’s deputy legislative director for Land and Water. “We’ll use every means we have to beat back this latest attempt to weaken basic clean water protections for working families, farmers, and outdoor businesses — whose lives and livelihoods are being threatened by coal ash every day. Our work will not be completed until every coal ash pit is properly secured and every local resident has access to an online monitor that confirms it.”
“This administration is doing everything it can to give coal a free ride, including dismantling our bare minimum protections,” said Larissa Liebmann, staff attorney at Waterkeeper Alliance. “The corporate dollars saved by weakening the CCR rule will be born by the communities living near coal ash disposal sites — they will pay the costs of contaminated drinking water and polluted waterways.”
“EPA failed for three decades to protect our water from toxic coal plants and now the Trump administration is turning back the clock, doubling down on that failure, and leaving communities in jeopardy,” said Jennifer Peters, Clean Water Action’s National Water Programs Director. “Trump clearly doesn’t care who his administration puts at risk as long as he can give handouts to the corporate polluters who write the checks for re-election campaigns.”
The EPA and Wheeler are caving to pressure from polluters who have fought hard against common-sense pollution protections for coal ash dumps. Over 1,400 coal ash waste dumps are spread across the nation, and at almost every site, the toxic waste has contaminated water sources.
“These changes aren't going to help Illinois,” said Andrew Rehn of the Prairie Rivers Network. “We need professional engineers, not political appointees or polluters, making decisions about the safety and clean up of coal ash.”
“Decades of regulatory inaction on coal ash disposal has left Indiana with a toxic legacy of serious groundwater contamination — with unsafe levels of arsenic, lead, boron, and radium, among other contaminants — confirmed at fifteen disposal sites in Indiana located on the shores of the White River, the Wabash River, Kankakee River, the Ohio River and Lake Michigan,” said Tim Maloney of Hoosier Environmental Council. “It is simply negligent for the EPA to roll back the long-overdue federal coal ash standards that the agency adopted in 2015, and would result in this pollution being left in place to continue contaminating our waterways and drinking water sources for many years to come.”
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 covered 300 acres, destroying dozens of homes. In 2014, a portion of a coal ash dump in North Carolina collapsed, fouling 80 miles of the Dan River with toxic sludge.
Lisa Evans, Earthjustice, (978) 548-8645
Larissa Liebmann, Waterkeeper Alliance, (212) 747-0622, ext. 122
Brian Willis, Sierra Club, (202) 253-7486
Michael Kelly, Clean Water Action, (202) 393-5449
Andrew Rehn, Prairie Rivers Network, (217) 344-2371, ext. 208
Tim Maloney, Hoosier Environmental Council, (812) 369-8677
Tom Pelton, Environmental Integrity Project, (443) 510-2574
Shelby Ward, Tennessee Clean Water Network, (865) 522-7007, ext. 103
Ruth Santiago, Comite Dialogo Ambiental, Inc., (781) 312-2223