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Trump EPA eases standards for coal ash disposal
The Trump administration started easing some standards for how companies discard coal ash, the toxic substances left over from burning coal.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) made final Wednesday what it said are the first of a potential series of changes to the Obama administration's landmark 2015 rule that dictated the first ever federal standards for coal ash disposal.
The amendments include postponing some deadlines and giving states or the EPA more authority to waive some requirements.
It is the first major regulatory move by acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler, who took over earlier this month when former chief Scott Pruitt resigned under the cloud of numerous scandals.
Wheeler was previously a lobbyist whose clients included coal mining company Murray Energy Corp. Murray opposed the 2015 rule, though Wheeler has said that he didn't lobby the EPA for two years before his April confirmation as deputy administrator.
And although Wheeler signed the rule, the regulatory process has been months in the making and Wednesday's changes were proposed in March.
The EPA said the looser rules will save as much as $31.4 million a year in avoided regulatory costs.
"These amendments 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."
Under the amendments made Wednesday, states or the EPA will be allowed to waive requirements for monitoring groundwater for potential leaching of coal ash under certain circumstances and to issue some certifications that previously had to come from professional engineers.
The EPA is also easing acceptable pollution standards for four substances in its groundwater monitoring requirements for coal ash: cobalt, lithium, molybdenum and lead.
In addition, the EPA is extending deadlines by which companies have to stop putting additional ash in waste facilities if groundwater pollution spikes or if the waste facilities are too close to aquifers.
The 2015 rule was put in place to protect soil and water from coal ash, which contains concentrated levels of arsenic, lead, chromium and other harmful substances. It followed a number of high-profile disastrous coal ash spills, like in Kingston, Tenn., in 2008 and in Eden, N.C., in 2014.
Environmental groups slammed the changes the EPA announced Wednesday.
"In his first action as head of the EPA, Andrew Wheeler is giving his former clients in the coal industry a pass on having to clean up their toxic waste. So much for his promise to protect clean air and water," Rebecca Hammer, deputy director for federal water policy at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in a statement.
"This action means families across the nation will be exposed to greater risks of cancer and other illnesses."
But utilities applauded the changes.
"Today's action is a welcome step as EPA continues to revisit the 2015 [coal ash] regulation. By extending 2015 compliance deadlines, EPA is working to avoid unintended consequences while the agency updates the original rule to incorporate new regulatory authority provided by Congress," said Jim Matheson, CEO of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.
The House could vote as soon as Wednesday on a spending bill amendment sponsored by Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) that would block the EPA from implementing any changes to the 2015 regulation.
The changes were enabled in part by provisions in the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act of 2016.