The Trump administration has announced its intention to roll back an Obama-era regulation that limited the leaching of heavy metals like arsenic, lead and mercury into water supplies–heavy metals that are produced and leach into groundwater from the ash residue produced by coal-fired power plants.
I wrote about the dangers of coal ash back in 2015, quoting the Hoosier Environmental Council when they were bringing in a coal ash expert to speak at their annual “Greening the Statehouse” event.
Coal ash has special significance for Indiana, since the state leads the nation in the number of coal ash waste lagoons. There is arguably no person better in America to speak to this issue than Lisa Evans. As a coal ash expert with twenty-five years of experience in hazardous waste law, Lisa has testified before the U.S. Congress and the National Academies of Science about the risks of coal ash and federal & state policy solutions.
The Obama Administration addressed those very real risks by passing new regulations in 2015; now, a series of newer rules expected from the Environmental Protection Agency (courtesy of the former lobbyists now running the agency) will substantially weaken regulations meant to strengthen inspection and monitoring at coal plants, and requiring plants to install new technology to protect water supplies from contaminated coal ash.
The E.P.A. will even exempt a significant number of power plants from any of the remaining requirements, according to quotations from people familiar with the Trump administration plan.
Coal ash, the residue from burning coal, is stored at more than 1,100 locations around the nation, with about 130 million tons being added each year. Unlike emissions of carbon dioxide, which many climate science deniers consider a good thing, nobody doubts the dangers of the chemicals in coal ash—including arsenic, lead, mercury, and selenium, among others. All are associated with birth defects and stunted brain growth in children. But the list of damages they can cause is far longer and includes cancer, heart damage, lung disease, respiratory distress, kidney disease, reproductive problems, gastrointestinal illness, and behavioral problems.
Hundreds of ash storage pits don’t even have a simple liner to help prevent toxins from leaching into waterways. According to a 2010 EPA assessment, people who live within a mile of unlined coal ash ponds have a 1 in 50 risk of cancer. That’s more than 2,000 times higher than what the EPA considers acceptable. Tainting of the water mostly happens in a trickle. But, occasionally, as in the 2008 Kingston Fossil Plant’s sudden release of 1.1 billion gallons of coal slurry in Tennessee, or the leakage of 82,000 tons of coal ash into North Carolina’s Dan River, the contamination comes in a catastrophic rush.
Environmental activists criticized the 2015 rule, arguing that it fell short of what is needed to effectively deal with coal ash, and failed to classify the ash as a hazardous waste, which it obviously is. It was a step forward, however.
For every forward step taken by the Obama Administration, however, Trump’s “best people” take two steps back.
Like so many efforts being made daily by the Trump Administration, this move prioritizes the bottom line of industry over the health and welfare of citizens. In this case, that preference is especially galling, because it is intended to help an industry that is dying–and dying thanks to market forces, not excessive regulations. Nor should its death be lamented: coal is a contributor to climate change, and the relatively few remaining jobs in coal mining are unacceptably dangerous.
Once again we are reminded that nothing this administration does–nothing–advances the common good, or makes environmental or even business sense.