Disposing of Toxic Coal Ash Is About To Get Easier

Tennessee coal ash spill site         Photo: Wade Payne, AP via The New York Times

Another day, another rule rollback.  Yesterday, the Trump Administration announced that it will significantly weaken two Obama Administration rules on the disposal of coal ash and on the disposal of contaminated water from coal plant operations — loosening both the timeline for compliance and exempting some plants entirely.  Under the prior rule, coal plants had to clean up their coal ash ponds by April of 2020 but now they can get up to 8 years more time.  There are serious consequences such as toxic pollutants seeping into groundwater just below the unlined coal ash disposal “ponds.”

Why This Matters:  This rollback is unconscionable – it puts at risk the health of millions of Americans — particularly minorities — who live near these coal ash ponds.  There are 451 of them around the country that could now continue to fester for potentially another decade.  There is no such thing as a safe coal plant — a report published jointly earlier this year found 91 percent of the nation’s coal-fired power plants reported elevated levels of contaminants such as arsenic, lithium, chromium and other pollutants in nearby groundwater and potentially into drinking water supplies. And worse yet, it is not even clear how this rollback actually helps the sputtering coal industry since the cleanup costs (estimated at only around $3.00/month for coal ash ponds in Virginia) would likely be passed on to consumers.

Strong Negative Reactions

Democratic Presidential contender Tom Steyer said, “These rules — that were extensively negotiated and modest in scope to begin with — were set in place to protect public health by creating safeguards that would prevent people from breathing or drinking these cancer-causing contaminants.  But even this minimal level of protection was too much for Trump to abide.”

“Allowing plants to continue to dump toxic waste into leaking coal ash ponds for another 10 years will cause irreversible damage to drinking water sources, human health and the nation’s waters,”  a lawyer for Earthjustice told The Washington Post.

Betsy Southerland, a former EPA scientist who helped develop the 2015 rule told The Hill, “[t]he 2015 rule being replaced today documented that coal fired power plants discharge over 1 billion pounds of pollutants every year into 4,000 miles of rivers, contaminating the drinking water and fisheries of 2.7 million people.”

The Risks 

Coal ash is full of toxic metals as is the wastewater from coal plants and thus highly dangerous.  For example, a decade after a coal ash spill of 1 billion gallons of toxic sludge in Tennessee in 2008, 200 workers who helped clean up the mess sued the utility involved alleging that the exposure led to various deadly cancers and other illnesses.   Moreover, the risk of spills from current coal ash ponds is increasing due to more severe storms during which rainwater causes open coal ash ponds to overflow.  Southerland summed up the situation in stark terms, saying coal ash ponds currently “are leaking like crazy into groundwater or busting into rivers. The people living around these plants are just screwed.”

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