WASHINGTON (CN) – Conservationists and public health groups brought a federal complaint Wednesday in an effort to halt Trump administration rollbacks of regulations governing coal power plant waste.
The 23-page complaint in Washington comes about a week after the Environmental Protection Agency placed an indefinite hold on the deadlines for coal power plants to meet new standards on the amount of arsenic, mercury, lead and other pollutants they can release into public waters.
As put into place last year under President Barack Obama, the standards marked the first revision of Clean Water Act guidelines since 1982.
They would have required power plants to remove more than 1.4 billion pounds of pollution from wastewater they dump into rivers, lakes and streams, but Earthjustice attorney Thomas Cmar noted in an interview that the plants are reluctant to shoulder the cost of updating their wastewater-treatment facilities.
Earthjustice represents Clean Water Action and seven other groups that want a federal judge to review the April 25 break on regulatory deadlines that the EPA gave the plants.
“Not only is this rule already in effect, but EPA’s authority does not give it the ability to pick and choose which portions of a rule would be postponed,” attorney Cmar said.
By focusing only the costs of the rule in issuing the stay, according to the complaint, the EPA “arbitrarily failed to consider the significant benefits of preventing more than 1.4 billion pounds of toxic mercury, arsenic, lead, and other pollutants from being dumped in our nation’s waterways every year.”
Clean Water Action is joined in the complaint by the Environmental Integrity Project, Sierra Club, Waterkeeper Alliance, Pennenvironment, Chesapeake Climate Action, Physicians for Social Responsibility and Prairie Rivers Network.
Cmar blasted the EPA’s statement that it would engage in rulemaking to make permanent regulatory changes, noting that such processes can take years.
“So the practical effect of EPA’s action is, for an indefinite period of time, the largest polluting industry in the country doesn’t have to comply with these very important updates to the protections on the amount of toxic pollution they can dump into our waters,” Cmar said.
Ash disposal is an unavoidable consideration when it comes to burning coal. Though the addition of scrubbers and filters to smoke stacks has reduced air pollution, Cmar noted that the captured ash must still go somewhere.
Most power plants have opted to dispose of it in wastewater, which in turn gets dumped in impoundments.
“It’s a fancy way of saying hole in the ground,” Cmar added.
Some of the solid particles in the wastewater settle out, but power plants have historically discharged the rest of the water into adjacent bodies of water, like lakes of streams. When impoundments fail, however, Americans see groundwater contamination and catastrophic spills.
The Obama-era rule requires power plants to phase out that method, which Cmar called “outdated, dirty and dangerous.”
He said a critical part of the lawsuit is that the EPA made no effort to postpone parts of the rule that exempt power plants from treating certain parts of their wastewater.
“And that selective application without any attempt at a rational or well supported justification is outside of EPA’s authority to simply enact by fiat with the stroke of a pen,” Cmar added.
The environmental and public health groups hope the court will vacate the April 25 EPA order.
“This industry has needed very significant improvements in how it handles its waste for a long time,” Cmar said. “And while EPA can certainly propose some changes to the standards that were created, it does not have the authority to put that process of complying with these long-overdue public-health protections on hold.”
The EPA did not respond to an email seeking comment on the lawsuit.