The Environmental Protection Agency rolled back Obama-era regulations on toxic ash from coal plants on Wednesday, according to a report from The Guardian, following through on the Trump administration’s promise to support the ailing American coal industry. According to the acting administrator of the EPA, Andrew Wheeler, the move will save companies a total of $30 million annually.
Coal power generation leaves behind large amounts of problematic ash waste from spent coal. The agency’s move will extend the deadline for the closure of the toxic ash dumps, allowing for more discretion on the part of state regulators. The coal industry has petitioned the administration to roll back the rule. Wheeler himself is a former lobbyist for the coal industry.
Critics say the move endangers public health, and drinking water in particular, in areas near the plants and ash dumps. Coal plants in the US produce about 100 million tons of waste each year, with much of that waste ending up in leak-prone disposal ponds, many of which have been in use for decades.
“We are poring through the rule change see what our next steps might be,” says Sierra Club deputy legislative director for land and water, Dalal Aboulhosn.
According to the EPA, there are 663 active ponds serving 321 plants, and 286 active coal landfills serving another 204 coal plants.
Utilities data, released in March on an EPA mandate, revealed evidence for widespread contamination of groundwater at coal plants, even including heightened levels of materials like arsenic and radium in some locations. The 18-month extension will push back the deadline for closing ash dumps to October 31st, 2020.
James Roewer, executive director of the industry organization Utility Solid Waste Advisory Group, said:
“It’s not like EPA has granted us free pass here. It just gives us additional time to operate those facilities and better synch them up [with future wastewater guidelines.]”
According to Wheeler:
“These amendments provide states and utilities much-needed flexibility in the management of coal ash, while ensuring human health and the environment are protected. Our actions mark a significant departure from the one-size-fits-all policies of the past and save tens of millions of dollars in regulatory costs.”
The rule was originally put in place by the Obama administration following a coal ash spill in Tennessee in 2008, which released 5.4 million cubic yards of waste into nearby rivers and destroyed homes, a result of a burst containment dike.
The move is Wheeler’s first major policy initiative after stepping in following Scott Pruitt’s resignation on July 5th.