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Green Group Threatens Suit Over 'Unconscionable Handout to Polluters' as EPA Attacks Water Rules for Coal Ash

"This latest rollback would lead directly to more water contamination, more birth defects, more childhood cancer, and more pain and suffering for American families—all for the sake of a dirty industry's last grasp at profits."

toxic coal ash

In February 2014, roughly 82,000 tons of toxic coal ash spilled from a Duke Energy site into North Carolina's Dan River. (Photo: Waterkeeper Alliance)

The environmental advocacy group Food & Water Action threatened the Trump administration with legal action Thursday in response to a New York Times report that detailed the Environmental Protection Agency's plans to roll back an Obama-era regulation that aimed to protect waterways near coal-fired power plants from toxins.

"By now, nothing from this nefarious administration shocks us, but each new rollback of a common-sense rule meant to keep families healthy and safe enrages us more and more."
—Wenonah Hauter, Food & Water Action

"By now, nothing from this nefarious administration shocks us, but each new rollback of a common-sense rule meant to keep families healthy and safe enrages us more and more," the organization's executive director, Wenonah Hauter, said in a statement Thursday.

Hauter warned that "this latest rollback would lead directly to more water contamination, more birth defects, more childhood cancer, and more pain and suffering for American families—all for the sake of a dirty industry's last grasp at profits."

President Donald Trump, a close ally of the coal industry, "may be immune from public shaming or the motivations of simple common decency, but his administration is now on notice," she added. "If this unconscionable handout to polluters is allowed to proceed, we will sue to stop it."

The regulation, enacted by the Obama administration in 2015, tightened disposal rules for coal combustion residuals (CCR)—commonly called coal ash—that are created when coal is burned by power plants. Designed to safeguard nearby waterways from contaminants like arsenic, lead, and mercury, the regulation followed a series of environmental disasters involving coal ash, such as when a busted pipe polluted the Dan River in North Carolina in 2014.

Exposure to toxic metals in coal ash, as Physicians for Social Responsibility and Earthjustice noted in a 2010 report, "can cause several types of cancer, heart damage, lung disease, respiratory distress, kidney disease, reproductive problems, gastrointestinal illness, birth defects, impaired bone growth in children, nervous system impacts, cognitive deficits, developmental delays, and behavioral problems."

Before the Obama-era rule took effect in November 2018, then-EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt announced in September 2017 that its implementation would be delayed until 2020 to provide "relief" to energy utilities and allow the agency to review the regulation—a move that critics denounced as "deeply disturbing."

Since then, the EPA—which is now under the direction of former coal industry lobbyist Andrew Wheeler—has taken steps to weaken the 2015 regulation.

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This year, the Times noted, the agency "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."

The Times reported Thursday on a "series of new rules expected in the coming days." According to the newspaper, the EPA

will move to weaken the 2015 regulation that would have strengthened inspection and monitoring at coal plants, lowered acceptable levels of toxic effluentm and required plants to install new technology to protect water supplies from contaminated coal ash.

The EPA will relax some of those requirements and exempt a significant number of power plants from any of the requirements, according to the two people familiar with the Trump administration plan, who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak about the new rules.

Although the EPA, which reportedly "held a conference call Tuesday with supporters of the Trump administration's deregulatory efforts," declined the Times' request for comment, environmentalists readily shared their alarm.

Lisa Evans, general counsel for the environmental law organization Earthjustice, told the Times the administration's plan is "a huge step backward and incredibly dangerous."

Evans pointed to an analysis released in March by Earthjustice and other environmental groups which showed that 91 percent of the 265 U.S. coal plants required to test nearby groundwater found unsafe levels of at least one coal ash contaminant, based on EPA standards.

"That knowledge should lead EPA to move to establish greater protections for our health," Evans said. "But EPA is running the other way under the direction of the utilities."

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