WASHINGTON (CN) – In a win for utility groups who petitioned for changes to Obama-era coal ash pollution rules, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt announced on Thursday his agency is reviewing 11 safeguards on the often toxic material.
In a statement on Thursday, Pruitt said it was in the “public’s interest to reconsider specific provisions” of the 2015 coal ash rule which established guidance for plants on how to handle the waste.
The announcement comes a month before coal industry executives are scheduled to hold a private conference at the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C.
According to The Intercept, which first reported on the conference, the National Mining Association's event will include strategic policy discussions, as well as speeches and meetings with members of the administration, including Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.
Coal ash, what remains after coal is burned for electricity production, is often rich in heavy metals, including mercury, cadmium, and arsenic, that are known carcinogens. The slurry, which is held in containment ponds, can poison animals and is also known to have severely damaging effects on the human respiratory system if it leeches out.
Pruitt said the decision to revise the rules was a response to industry requests and a result of recent authority granted to the EPA under the Water Infrastructure for Improvements to the Nation Act.
The act was passed in December 2016 and provides states the authority to regulate their own coal ash as long as the EPA determines that the state’s orders are just as protective as the 2015 federal rule.
“In light of EPA’s new statutory authority, it is important that we give the existing rule a hard look and consider improvements that may help states tailor their permit programs to the needs of their states, in a way that provides greater regulatory certainty, while also ensuring that human health and the environment remain protected,” Pruitt said.
The EPA also emphasized that the review does not mean the rule will be changed necessarily. Nor does it mean that the body agrees with any of the merits of the petitions, Pruitt said.
The petitions were launched by the power company, AES Puerto Rico and the Utility Solid Waste Activities Group or USWAG, in May.
USWAG specifically asked the EPA to evaluate prohibitions on “alterative points of compliance for ground water contamination” as well as define what activities constitute the beneficial use of coal ash.
AES Puerto Rico was particularly interested in review of onsite storage practices, the EPA said.
Lisa Evans, attorney for the nonprofit environmental law organization, Earthjustice, said that despite Pruitt’s reassurances that review of the petitions is innocuous, she has her doubts.
“The decision is a galling giveaway to industrial polluters, even by this administration’s standards of pandering to industry at the expense of the public,” Evans said on Thursday. “The EPA is sending a crystal-clear message to families across the country: our job is protect wealthy polluters, not you and your children. These toxic dumps should have been cleaned up decades ago.”
Before coal ash safeguards were first put into place, Earthjustice was among the first to file lawsuits on behalf of public interest groups who contested the dangerous impacts of coal ash pollution.
More than 500,000 comments were submitted to the EPA from people supporting coal ash regulations before the 2015 law went into effect, Earthjustice reported.
In a statement on Thursday, like Earthjustice, Waterkeeper Alliance attorney Pete Harrison said the EPA is playing “right into the hands of the wealthiest polluters in the country” and is now ignoring the thousands of people who submitted comments calling for common sense regulations.
“Most Americans simply don't buy into this administration's warped idea that we have to sacrifice clean water and public safety in order to achieve 'energy independence' and a strong economy,” Harrison said.
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