WASHINGTON (CN) – Just four months after a report detailed the widespread impact coal ash has on groundwater throughout the U.S., the Environmental Protection Agency announced a proposal Tuesday that would exempt the construction industry from regulations for the storage and use of the toxic substance.
Coal ash is the residue left over from burning coal. It is often used as a replacement for soil, like for creating level ground for construction projects or as a cover for landfills. But it has also been linked to arsenic contamination in water, which can cause some types of cancer.
Arsenic, cadmium and other neurotoxins like lithium have leeched into water supplies near coal ash dumpsites in 39 states, according to a report released in March, and environmental groups like Earthjustice say the EPA’s latest proposal is a major blow to public health.
The proposal marks a change to the 2015 coal ash rule, a regulation created under former President Barack Obama. The Obama-era EPA established the rule after reports emerged of harmful disposal methods at the AES-PR coal plant in Puerto Rico. AES-PR is the operator of the largest coal ash pile in the U.S.
But in 2017, after President Donald Trump moved into the White House, AES petitioned the EPA to reconsider the 2015 rule, specifically requesting changes to regulations on how the ash is stored and used.
Under Tuesday’s proposed revisions, the EPA appears ready to grant industry requests: coal ash storage at construction sites would be altogether exempt from volume restrictions.
Further, the proposal states that in places where companies store coal ash, they need only conduct safety demonstrations or assessments when the ash is just 5 feet from sensitive or dangerous areas like floodplains, sinkholes or groundwater supplies.
“The Trump EPA, led by Andrew Wheeler, is doing everything in its power to gut essential health protections from toxic coal ash in the 2015 rule. Despite compelling and damning scientific evidence highlighting the harm to groundwater from coal ash and court victories by community groups requiring the EPA to strength the 2015 rule, Wheeler is giving this gift to his former employers at the cost of public health,” Lisa Evans, senior counsel with Earthjustice, said in a statement Tuesday.
The proposed rule also would not include any requirements for companies to share safety demonstrations with the public unless directly asked.
AES-PR was fined twice for public endangerment after it failed to cover its 400-ton waste pile following Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Maria. The site remains uncovered today and if the EPA’s rule is finalized, environmentalists fear the toxic pile will never be covered.
A representative from AES-PR did not immediately respond to request for comment Tuesday.
The EPA will hold a hearing for comment on the rule on Oct. 2. The location for the hearing has not yet been disclosed.