EPA rolls back Obama-era coal ash regulations

As one of his first major acts as acting director of the US Environmental Protection Agency, Andrew Wheeler signed an...

Posted: Jul 19, 2018 1:02 AM

As one of his first major acts as acting director of the US Environmental Protection Agency, Andrew Wheeler signed and finalized new standards overseeing coal ash, the leftover waste created by power plants that burn coal. The new rules are a revision of 2015 regulations that were put into place by the Obama administration after two significant industrial coal ash spills.

Signed into rules on Wednesday, the new regulations put more authority back in the hands of industry and states to regulate their own waste. For example, states can tailor disposal requirements to specific sites. They also "provide states and utilities much-needed flexibility in the management of coal ash, while ensuring human health and the environment are protected," Wheeler said in a statement. "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."

There are over 1,000 coal ash ponds across the country

Coal ash is the waste left after burning coal and contains heavy metals associated with cancer

Prior to joining the EPA as second-in-command of the agency in April this year, Wheeler was a lobbyist with Faegre Baker Daniels consulting, where one of his clients was Murray Energy, "the country's largest underground coal mining company." According to his recusal statement, he also represented a number of other energy companies, including Energy Fuels Resources Inc, Growth Energy, and Xcel Energy. In that statement, Wheeler said he would abstain from participating in any decisions involving former clients for the next two years.

Energy industry groups have been actively trying to revise the standards since President Trump came into office. The Utility Solids Waste Activities Group, an industry organization representing more than 110 utility groups, sent a petition to the agency challenging the 2015 regulations on coal ash containment. It called the regulations too rigorous and costly.

According to the petition, the rule resulted "in significant economic and operational impacts to coal-fired power generation," claiming that it was such a burden that "the economic viability of coal-fired power plants is jeopardized."

Industry trade groups such as the Edison Electric Institute previously argued that proposed changes to the standards weren't a rollback, but rather, a way to better tailor to the needs of each site. "We believe (states) are in a better spot to look at local issues. The folks at the state regulatory agencies have a much better feel for the issues at hand," Edison Electric Institute's Jim Roewer, who is also the executive director of the Utility Solid Waste Activities Group.

In a statement from the Utility Solid Waste Activities Group, Roewer said "this action provides the regulatory certainty needed to make investment decisions to ensure compliance and the continued protection of health and the environment."

The EPA said more of the previously proposed changes to the 2015 coal ash rules will be addressed later, and additional changes will be proposed, as well.

Environmental advocates said the new rules are a gift to industry.

"This administration is granting the wishes of the lobbyists and the lawyers for the coal ash utilities and is turning its back on the families and communities across America that are suffering the consequences of primitive coal ash disposal," said Frank Holleman, a senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center.

Coal ash is one of the most-generated forms of industrial waste in the country. According to the American Coal Ash Association, about 110 million tons are generated each year. About half of all coal ash produced in the United States is recycled into construction materials such as concrete or wallboard; it makes these materials stronger. However, that leaves about 50 million tons of coal ash that need to be disposed of every year.

Historically, when coal was burned, plants would send the ash out of smokestacks, creating dark plumes of smoke. Now, scrubbers and filters collect much of the ash. It may not escape into the air anymore, but it does have to go somewhere. Traditionally, power plants mixed the leftover ash with water and sluiced it into unlined pits, where the ash would settle to the bottom.

Sometimes, these ponds were dug into the groundwater table -- water that can be pulled up by private drinking wells, or that eventually makes its way into drinking water. Many of these sites also sit along the banks of rivers, lakes and streams, separating waste from waters with nothing more than earthen banks.

According to the EPA, there are over 1,000 coal ash disposal sites across the country, many of them constructed in the 1950s and 1960s, well before any sort of regulations.

Holleman, the Southern Environmental Law Center attorney, said he can't imagine a more precarious way to manage this waste.

"Millions of tons of industrial waste directly on the banks of major drinking water reservoirs that serve hundreds of thousands of people," he said, "that's a recipe for disaster."

In the past decade, there have been two major coal ash spills in the US. In 2008, a break in a dam at the Tennessee Valley Authority's Kingston power plant sent over a billion gallons of coal ash cascading into the Clinch River. The black sludge blanketed over 300 acres, inundating the area around Kingston, Tennessee. The spill destroyed three homes and damaged a dozen others. Scientists found fish contaminated with high levels of arsenic and selenium months after the spill.

Indiana Coronavirus Cases

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Cases: 735999

Reported Deaths: 13486
CountyCasesDeaths
Marion1007151752
Lake54249977
Allen40946680
St. Joseph36335553
Hamilton35829408
Elkhart28844443
Tippecanoe22475219
Vanderburgh22367397
Porter18946311
Johnson18067381
Hendricks17317315
Clark13036192
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Vigo12501249
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Monroe11957172
Delaware10755187
Howard10001218
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Warrick7799155
Floyd7690178
Grant7098174
Wayne7072199
Boone6745101
Morgan6611140
Dubois6166117
Marshall6111112
Cass5876105
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Ohio57111
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Ohio Coronavirus Cases

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Cases: 1091623

Reported Deaths: 19528
CountyCasesDeaths
Franklin1268061406
Cuyahoga1132982134
Hamilton804211211
Montgomery518231015
Summit47606955
Lucas42618792
Butler38548585
Stark32661909
Lorain25199486
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Mahoning21795588
Lake20846371
Clermont19880240
Delaware18608133
Licking16488212
Fairfield16327200
Trumbull16196468
Medina15379266
Greene15143244
Clark14096299
Wood13168189
Portage12966206
Allen11740232
Richland11433199
Miami10713220
Wayne8923214
Columbiana8881229
Muskingum8831133
Pickaway8596121
Marion8561136
Tuscarawas8509245
Erie7958155
Hancock6944128
Ashtabula6904172
Ross6876156
Geauga6741148
Scioto6444102
Belmont5978168
Union575448
Lawrence5590102
Jefferson5583151
Huron5462120
Sandusky5380122
Darke5374126
Seneca5311122
Washington5228109
Athens520858
Auglaize494986
Mercer481585
Shelby470293
Knox4513110
Madison439363
Putnam4301101
Ashland426590
Fulton426469
Defiance424697
Crawford3993107
Brown397557
Logan383276
Preble381398
Clinton374163
Ottawa369081
Highland356862
Williams343475
Champaign335358
Guernsey317653
Jackson314152
Perry295950
Morrow287239
Fayette283550
Hardin271964
Henry270366
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Holmes2625101
Van Wert244263
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Pike238634
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Wyandot232155
Hocking216462
Carroll192448
Paulding174340
Meigs145540
Noble134137
Monroe132542
Harrison109637
Morgan108823
Vinton84915
Unassigned02
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