WASHINGTON — The Trump administration is expected to roll back an Obama-era regulation that was to limit the leaching of dangerous heavy metals like arsenic, lead and mercury from the ash produced by coal-fired power plants, according to two people familiar with the plans.
With a series of new rules expected in November, the Environmental Protection Agency will move to weaken the 2015 regulation by relaxing some of the requirements on power generators and also exempting a significant number of power plants from even those weakened requirements.
The new effort is designed to extend the life of old, coal-fired power plants that have been shutting down in the face of competition from cheaper natural gas and renewable energy. Environmental groups warned that the move could lead to health problems caused by contaminated drinking water, including birth defects, cancer and stunted brain development in young children.
A spokesman for the EPA did not respond to a request for comment. Agency officials held a conference call Tuesday with supporters of the Trump administration’s deregulatory efforts to discuss the measure, multiple people on the call confirmed.
The move is part of a series of efforts by the Trump administration to relax restrictions on coal-fired power plants and promote the construction of new ones even as market forces continue the industry’s decline and scientific evidence mounts about the need to reduce fossil fuel use to avert catastrophic climate change.
Myron Ebell, who heads the energy program at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, an industry-funded research organization, described the Obama-era measure as part of an effort to “kill coal” and said the proposed rollback would give utilities more flexibility.
“It was a back door way to force utilities to close coal-fired power plants because they had no way of disposing of coal ash,” he said. “This is an important step toward putting the various sources of electricity back on a more level playing field.”
Coal ash is the residue produced from burning coal. Each year, power plants produce about 130 million tons of coal ash, which is stored at about 1,100 sites across the country.
In recent years, spills and leaks of coal ash have fouled rivers, endangered wildlife and brought national attention to the issue. The Obama-era rule came partially in response to a 2008 disaster in Tennessee when a containment pond ruptured at the Kingston Fossil Plant. More than 1.1 billion gallons of coal ash slurry spilled into nearby rivers and destroyed homes.
In 2014, a broken pipe spilled millions of gallons of liquefied coal ash from a retired power plant into North Carolina’s Dan River. It turned the water into dark sludge and threatened drinking water supplies. The electric utility Duke Energy later agreed to pay a $6 million fine for violating water protection laws during and after the disaster. The spill also spurred passage of a new state law in North Carolina that requires all coal ash storage ponds be closed by 2029.
According to the EPA, about 1.1 million Americans live within 3 miles of a coal plant that discharges pollutants into a public waterway. The 2015 rule set deadlines for power plants to invest in modern wastewater treatment technology to keep toxic pollution out of local waterways. The regulation also required them to monitor local water quality and make more information publicly available. The Obama administration estimated the regulations would stop about 1.4 billion pounds of toxic metals and other pollutants from pouring into rivers and streams.
But the rule would have also raised the cost of operating the plants, further endangering their economic viability.
One person familiar with the EPA’s current plans said the agency intended to say that the new rule would remove more pollutants than the Obama-era regulation. That assertion is based on an analysis that assumes about 30% of power plants will voluntarily choose to install more stringent technology.
The new rule also would confine the areas that utilities must measure for leakage, according to a second person familiar with the plans.
Power plants were originally required to start complying with the requirements by as early as November 2018, but Scott Pruitt, President Donald Trump’s first EPA administrator, postponed compliance until 2020, saying the agency was providing “relief” to utilities as it reviewed the rule.
Environmental groups have challenged that delay and said they would also challenge the rollback.
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A recent study by environmental groups found that more than 90% of the 265 coal plants required to test their groundwater near coal ash dumps discovered unsafe levels of at least one contaminant. According to environmental groups that track the problem, power plants discharge more than 1 billion pounds of pollutants every year into 4,000 miles of rivers, contaminating the drinking water and fisheries of 2.7 million people.
“That knowledge should lead EPA to move to establish greater protections for our health,” said Lisa Evans, a senior counsel for Earthjustice, an environmental organization. “But EPA is running the other way under the direction of the utilities.”
This year the EPA proposed a number of separate amendments to the coal-ash regulations including extending by 18 months the time that industry could use certain sites adjacent to groundwater areas for dumping. Andrew Wheeler, the administrator of the EPA and a former lobbyist for the coal industry, said in a statement at the time that the relaxed rules would save affected utility companies $28 million to $31 million a year in regulatory costs.
“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,” Wheeler said then in a statement.