The Environmental Protection Agency on Monday plans to relax rules that govern how power plants store waste from burning coal and release water containing toxic metals into nearby waterways, according to agency officials.
The proposals, which scale back two rules adopted in 2015, affect the disposal of fine powder and sludge known as “coal ash,” as well as contaminated water that power plants produce while burning coal. Both forms of waste can contain mercury, arsenic and other heavy metals that pose risks to human health and the environment.
The new rules allow extensions that could keep unlined coal-ash waste ponds open for as long as eight more years. The biggest benefits from the rule governing contaminated wastewater would come from the voluntary use of new filtration technology.
Trump administration officials revised the standards in response to recent court rulings, as well as to petitions from companies that said they could not afford to meet stringent Obama-era requirements. They also reflect President Donald Trump’s broader goal of bolstering the U.S. coal industry at a time when natural gas and renewable energy provide more affordable sources of electricity.
Under the Obama-era rule, coal-ash ponds leaking contaminants into groundwater that exceeded federal protection standards had to close by April 2019. The Trump administration extended that deadline until October 2020 in a rule it finalized last year.
In August 2018, the District of Columbia U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals instructed the EPA to require that companies overhaul ponds, including those lined with clay and compacted soil, even if there was no evidence that sludge was leaking into groundwater.
EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said the Obama-era rules “placed heavy burdens on electricity producers across the country.”
“These proposed revisions support the Trump administration’s commitment to responsible, reasonable regulations,” Wheeler said, “by taking a common-sense approach that will provide more certainty to U.S. industry while also protecting public health and the environment.”
Under the new proposal, companies will have to stop placing coal ash into unlined storage ponds near waterways by Aug. 31, 2020, and either retrofit these sites to make them more secure or begin to close them. Unlike the Obama-era rules, the EPA will allow greater leeway and more time for operators to request extensions ranging from 90 days to three years, until Oct. 15, 2023, if they can persuade regulators that they need more time to properly dispose of the waste.
American Public Power Association general counsel Delia Patterson said the proposed rules reflect the fact that it can take time to design, permit and construct new facilities that can pass muster.
Environmentalists have sharply criticized the proposals, arguing these containment sites pose serious risks to the public at a time when more frequent and intense flooding, fueled in part by climate change, could destabilize them and contaminate drinking water supplies that serve millions of people. The rules will be subject to public comment for 60 days.
During the past decade, Tennessee and North Carolina have experienced major coal-ash spills that have destroyed homes and contaminated rivers, resulting in sickened cleanup workers and lawsuits.
The question of how to handle coal waste, which is stored in roughly 450 sites across the country, has vexed regulators for decades. The Obama administration negotiated for years with environmental groups, electric utilities and other affected industries about how to address the waste, which can poison wildlife and poses health risks to people living near storage sites.