(CN) — The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Monday finalized the weakening of Obama-era regulations on coal ash, claiming the rule change will reduce pollution from coal-fired power plants by over one million pounds every year as critics say it allows the continued dumping of lead, mercury and arsenic into waterways.
Proposed in 2019, the finalized Steam Electric Reconsideration Rule weakens regulations on coal ash — the remnant of coal burned to generate electricity — and residue washed from smokestack filters. Coal ash is one of the largest types of industrial waste generated in the country, with the EPA stating 110 million tons were generated from 470 coal-fired plants in 2012.
The change effectively guts the 2015 Effluent Limitation Guidelines imposed by the Obama administration that banned the discharges, which required the installation of membrane filtration — a more effective, but more expensive, pollution reduction technology — by 2023.
Power companies have until the end of 2025 to comply with the changes finalized Monday, while coal-fired plants that are expected to shut down by 2028 are exempt. Power companies can now discharge up to 10% of the bottom ash water.
EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler — a former coal lobbyist — said the rule change offers “flexibility” on the phasing-in of the environmental regulations and “will reduce pollution and save jobs” in the meantime.
“As a result, the new rule will save the U.S. power sector approximately $140 million annually while reducing pollution by nearly a million pounds per year over the 2015 rule,” Wheeler said in a statement. “EPA’s revised steam electric effluent guidelines shows President Trump’s commitment to advancing American energy independence and protecting the environment.”
Betsy Southerland, the former director of science and technology at the EPA’s Office of Water during the Obama administration, flatly disagreed with Wheeler’s pollution reduction claim, stating he is assuming several of the power plants will volunteer to comply with the stronger standards. She said the agency is only listening to the coal industry.
“This rule is going to continue to let these coal-fired power plants pour these toxics into the nation’s rivers and streams, contaminating drinking water and fisheries for 2.7 million people,” she said.
The Sierra Club agreed, blasting the rule change as allowing most coal plants to keep “dumping their toxic, industrial sludge” into drinking water sources for millions of people.
“The Trump EPA’s final rule is based on bogus science and a flagrantly partisan process — Wheeler allowed no in-person hearings and minimal opportunities for affected communities to weigh in,” said Mary Anne Hitt, Sierra Club’s national director of campaigns. “Wheeler’s new rule pushes back compliance dates for their newly approved weakened standards, and carves out giant-sized loopholes for certain coal plant polluters. It’s nothing more than another attempt at a lifeline to an industry responsible for billions of pounds of pollution that contaminate our water year after year.”
Trump and Wheeler have faced intense criticism for proposing or finalizing a long list of EPA rule changes since the latter’s confirmation in 2018. The agency has revised regulations for the disposal of refrigerator appliances under the Clean Air Act, lifted protections on the dumping of pesticides, fertilizer and chemicals in millions of miles of waterways, and allowed the sale of wood heating systems that fail clean air standards, among other changes.
The dizzying number of pro-industry changes prompted six former EPA heads from both Republican and Democratic administrations to issue an open letter three weeks ago calling for the agency to be overhauled after this year’s presidential election. The former administrators wrote the “actions during the Trump administration have further decreased public confidence in the agency’s credibility, undercut its historic dedication to high ethical standards, and affected employee morale.”