Greens challenge Trump’s rollback of coal ash standards

Greens challenge Trump’s rollback of coal ash standards
© Anna Moneymaker

Environmental groups are suing the Trump administration for rolling back parts of a major regulation governing how companies store coal ash.

The groups, led by Earthjustice, filed their lawsuit Monday against the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

The original 2015 rule from the Obama administration was the first national regulation regarding disposal of coal ash, a black sludge leftover from burning coal that contains concentrated levels of heavy metals like arsenic, cadmium and chromium. Coal ash storage ponds are often adjacent to waterways, since coal-fired power plants need cooling water.

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The amendments, rolled out in July, give more time for coal plant owners to clean up certain coal ash ponds that are leaking, and gives states new power to exempt companies from certain pollution monitoring requirements.

“The risk that legacy impoundments and insufficiently lined coal ash ponds pose is too great to let another hurricane season go by without addressing the problem,” Thomas Cmar, the lead Earthjustice attorney in the case, said in a statement.

“The dam breach at the Sutton Plant that spewed toxic coal ash into the Cape Fear River in the wake of flooding from Hurricane Florence should make it clear that there’s no time to waste,” he said, referring to an incident last month in which flood waters moved an unspecified amount of coal ash from a closed power plant into a North Carolina river. State tests later found that pollutant levels in the river had not exceeded state maximums.

“Throughout the country, in the absence of adequate regulation by EPA, coal ash has been irresponsibly disposed of,” said Larissa Liebmann, staff attorney at the Waterkeeper Alliance, another party to the case. “This leaves communities and waterways vulnerable to long-term contamination, as well as spills like we saw in North Carolina with Hurricane Florence. EPA needs to stop catering to industry and start protecting the public.”

The EPA did not respond to a request for comment.

But in rolling out the changes in July, acting EPA head Andrew Wheeler said they would provide necessary “flexibility” for states and companies.

“These amendments provide states and utilities much-needed flexibility in the management of coal ash, while ensuring human health and the environment are protected,” he said. “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.”

The EPA estimated that the changes would save up to $31.4 million per year, from lower compliance costs for companies.

Some of the changes were mandated by Congress in a 2016 law.

In their statement, green groups highlighted an August ruling by the D.C. Circuit Court that found that some parts of the original 2015 rule were inadequate. Specifically, the judges said the EPA should not have exempted coal ash ponds at closed plants from certain standards, nor should it have let some unlined ponds remain.

The EPA said it is planning to propose further changes to the coal ash in the future.

— This report was updated at 11:24 a.m.