Today, the Trump Environmental Protection Agency continued its attempt to dismantle landmark safeguards to protect public health and the environment from toxic coal ash pollution from coal-fired power plants. The EPA issued a proposal to drop the Obama administration’s plan to establish a requirement that coal plants set aside funds to clean up spills and the pollution caused by coal ash. The Obama EPA determined that such financial assurance regulations were likely warranted due to the high risk posed to health and the environment from coal ash spills and releases.
Following the catastrophic 2008 TVA coal ash spill in Tennessee, costing over $1 billion to clean up, the Obama EPA recognized the need for such critical protections and for utilities to guarantee funds for cleanup. Financial assurance rules would have required coal plants to set aside funds to pay for cleanup of coal ash contamination.
In the past five years there have been toxic coal ash spills including the Dan River spill in 2014 and the Cape Fear River spill during Hurricane Florence in 2018 at plants owned by Duke Energy. North Carolina state regulators recently required Duke Energy to completely excavate its remaining coal ash ponds to eliminate the risk of another spill and to stop groundwater and surface water pollution. Duke estimates the cost of cleanup at more than $9 billion.
Earlier this year, Earthjustice and the Environmental Integrity Project released a joint report revealing that 91 percent of reporting coal plants are contaminating groundwater at hundreds of sites around the country. In today’s proposal, EPA fails to consider this widespread evidence of groundwater contamination and fails to consider the risk that utilities may be unable to pay for the cleanup. In addition, the EPA has announced its intent to pursue additional rollbacks of the protections in the 2015 Coal Ash Rule. The removal of the 2015 protections may make spills and releases even more likely. The EPA is expected to continue a second phase of rollbacks this summer in addition to today’s action.
“There are too many examples to count of the human and environmental damage caused by coal ash.” said Earthjustice Senior Counsel and coal ash expert Lisa Evans, “We know the risk this toxic waste poses to our communities. EPA is blatantly ignoring its duty to protect people over billion-dollar corporations polluting our backyards. The polluters should foot the bill for the toxic mess they create, not the public.”
The financial assurance rules for coal plants are part of several rulemakings involving high risk industries including hardrock mining, chemical plants and refineries. These regulations have been awaiting action from the EPA since the 1980’s. As a result of litigation brought by Earthjustice, EPA is bound by a consent decree that requires the agency to make final determinations regarding whether financial assurance is required for four high risk industry sectors. Earthjustice is currently engaged in litigation challenging the Trump EPA’s determination in 2017 that financial assurance requirements were not warranted for hardrock mining.
"This is another infuriating display of the Trump administration's indifference toward protecting the public from dangerous coal ash. They've already put thousands of people at risk by undermining other key components of the Obama administration's safeguards against coal ash, and now they are trying to get coal companies off the hook for putting the money forward to clean up their disgusting waste product," said Dalal Aboulhosn, Sierra Club's Deputy Legislative Director for Land and Water. "I've always taught my children that it is important to clean up after themselves, not just so no one steps on their toys, but also because it’s a basic lesson of personal responsibility. The Trump administration, on the other hand, is telling coal companies that it doesn't matter what happens to their toxic coal ash and that the public will inevitably foot the bill. This decision to dismantle accountability provisions for coal ash will be challenged at every level. Everyone should clean up after themselves, especially if what they need to clean up can make other people sick."
EPA plans to continue its phase II rollback of the coal combustion residuals rule with several rulemakings in the near future, including another rollback expected this month.