Protections Against Coal-Ash Seepage Put in the Shredder of Trump EPA

In this photo released by Duke Energy, the Sutton 1971 coal ash basin is seen Sept. 21, 2018, near Wilmington, N.C. (Duke Energy via AP)

WASHINGTON (CN) — Just weeks after the president cast himself as a “great environmentalist” in a Florida rally, conservation groups condemned his administration Friday for undermining a court’s order to prevent water contamination with coal ash.

The D.C. Circuit issued the directive in 2018 after chucking rules that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had crafted with input from the coal industry for operators of landfills containing waste streams called coal ash. While the court had ordered the closure of any coal ash ponds lacking a plastic or specific clay liner, the new rule finalized by the EPA offers operators a loophole. Coal ash ponds can stay open, the EPA now says, if operators can demonstrate that “the unit has and will continue to have no probability of adverse effects on human health or the environment.”

Dalal Aboulhosn, the Sierra Club’s deputy legislative director, blasted the move as the latest gift by EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler to the coal industry he served for so many years as a lobbyist before joining the Trump administration.

“We wish he was as useful to the public as he is to his former employers in the coal industry, but based on his track record, that isn’t going to happen,” Aboulhosn said in a statement Friday.

Last month, in holding himself out as the “No. 1” president for the environment since Theodore Roosevelt, President Donald Trump trumpeted his new ban on oil drilling of the Atlantic coast. Trump had previously been outspoken in his support of such drilling, amid a relentless push to roll back climate change safeguards, fast-track construction projects, and weaken the rules that protect endangered species, drinking water and air quality.

Lisa Evans, Earthjustice’s senior counsel, pointed to a 2019 study that showed 92% of ash ponds are contaminating groundwater above federal standards.

“Further, EPA’s own risk assessment indicates that only composite liners (defined as a layer of two feet of impermeable clay topped by a layer of plastic) are sufficient to protect groundwater from contamination by coal ash ponds,” Evans wrote in an email. 

Earthjustice carried out the 2019 study with the nonprofit the Environmental Integrity Project, observing unsafe levels of one or more of the pollutants of coal ash in the groundwater near 242 of the 265 power plants with data.

Just 19 miles southeast of Washington, D.C., the groundwater beneath Brandywine landfill was found to have 200 times more than the safe levels of lithium. The study also found that contaminated groundwater had been flowing into streams, known as baseflow.

Within those baseflows, the chemical boron, a common ingredient of eyedrops and antiseptics, clocked in at 3,000 times higher levels than is safe for aquatic life.

At Battlefield Golf Course in Virginia, 25 drinking wells had elevated levels of the chemical.

Groundwater near the New Castle Generating Station’s coal ash dump, only an hour outside Pittsburgh, was found to have 372 times more than the safe levels of arsenic — enough to cause cancer in one out of every six people.

Representatives for the EPA declined to be interviewed for this article. The agency’s fact sheet notes that the rule on coal ash ponds is a work in progress.

Landfills wishing to stay open despite lacking the required clay or plastic liners must apply to the EPA for consideration by November 30.

To document its qualifications, operators must attest to their site’s hydrology and evaluate any potential for infiltration through the liners. According to the rule, however, those steps don’t have to be completed until January 31, 2022.

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