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'Another Toxic Giveaway': Trump EPA Blasted for Rollback of Coal Plant Wastewater Rules

"Giving coal companies a free pass to dump more toxic heavy metals like mercury and arsenic into our waters is a travesty."

Coal ash contaminated water, which is colorized from the heavy metals, runs from the coal ash pond D via the toe drain to the nearby creek and finally into the Potomac River in Dumfries, Virginia, on January 7, 2016. (Photo: Astrid Riecken For The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Coal ash contaminated water, which is colorized from the heavy metals, runs from the coal ash pond D via the toe drain to the nearby creek and finally into the Potomac River in Dumfries, Virginia, on January 7, 2016. (Photo: Astrid Riecken For The Washington Post via Getty Images)

In what critics called yet "another toxic giveaway" to corporate polluters, the Trump administration late Monday afternoon announced final revisions to Obama-era regulations designed protect lakes, rivers, and streams near coal-fired power plants by imposing strict treatment requirements for wastewater containing toxic pollutants.

"This shameless handout will allow greater amounts of these dangerous pollutants to be spewed directly into our waterways."
—Brett Hartl, CBD

The new Environmental Protection Agency guidelines relax a 2015 rule's treatment standards for wastewater from coal plants that contains pollutants like arsenic, lead, mercury, and selenium. The Trump policy gives energy companies more time to comply with the loosened requirements and exempts plants that will shut down or transition to natural gas by 2028.

"The measure targets pollution unleashed when power companies clean up coal-fired plants, including sulfur dioxide captured by emissions-control equipment inside smokestacks," Bloomberg Green explained. "Plant operators also often rely on water to flush toxic coal ash from the bottom of furnaces. For more than a decade, environmentalists have warned the practice imperils American waterways."

The EPA announcement outraged environmental and public health advocates such as Brett Hartl, government affairs director at the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), who declared that "giving coal companies a free pass to dump more toxic heavy metals like mercury and arsenic into our waters is a travesty."

"This shameless handout will allow greater amounts of these dangerous pollutants to be spewed directly into our waterways," he warned, "threatening public health and pushing hundreds of aquatic endangered species, including salmon, sturgeon, and hellbender salamanders, closer to extinction."

While some critics had challenged the Obama policy as inadequate, environmentalists put the EPA's weakening of it into the context of the Trump administration's broader deregulatory agenda. During the president's first term, he and federal agencies have gutted or scrapped scores of environmental and climate regulations that were opposed by polluting industries.

"The Trump administration is once again jeopardizing people's health to give coal power industry lobbyists what they want," Earthjustice attorney Thom Cmar said of the wastewater guidelines, vowing his group will take on the new policy in court. "The Trump administration's rollback will be responsible for hundreds of thousands of pounds of pollutants contaminating sources of drinking water, lakes, rivers and streams every year."

Mary Anne Hitt, national director of campaigns at Sierra Club, specifically called out the president and EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist.

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"Even during a pandemic, a recession, several climate change fueled hurricanes, and national protests against their policies, Donald Trump and Andrew Wheeler are showing their true colors: putting power plant industry profits before the public's health," Hitt said. "The Trump EPA's final rule is based on bogus science and a flagrantly partisan process—Wheeler allowed no in-person hearings and minimal opportunities for affected communities to weigh in."

"Wheeler's new rule pushes back compliance dates for their newly approved weakened standards, and carves out giant-sized loopholes for certain coal plant polluters," she added. "It's nothing more than another attempt at a lifeline to an industry responsible for billions of pounds of pollution that contaminate our water year after year."

Wheeler claimed that the guidelines show Trump's "commitment to advancing American energy independence and protecting the environment." He added that "newer, more affordable pollution control technologies and flexibility on the regulation's phase-in will reduce pollution and save jobs at the same time."

Betsy Southerland, who served as director of science and technology at the EPA's Office of Water under the Obama administration, pushed back against Wheeler's remarks in a comment to The Hill, criticizing the assumption that coal facilities will voluntarily adopt stricter standards.

"They only listen to industry," she said. "They never listen to public health specialists or environmentalists, so it must be that these people told them they didn't want it required, so that doesn't bode well for them just voluntarily deciding to do it on their own, but it allows the EPA... to argue that their less stringent treatment option has a bigger reduction of [toxins] than the Obama rule."

Bloomberg noted that "a coalition of utilities and industry trade groups, including the Edison Electric Institute, which represents Southern Company, Duke Energy Corp., and Xcel Energy Inc., had lobbied for the relief" from the Obama policy.

Southerland told The Guardian that the EPA assumes about a third of coal plants will use treatment technologies that are more effective than what's required.

"It's clear from this rule that a relatively inexpensive treatment technology is available—the one that they made voluntary—that would eliminate the toxic contamination of drinking water supplies and is very affordable. And yet they did not require it," she said. "People should be very concerned."

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