Relaxing rules around coal

Materials World magazine
5 Nov 2019

New USA Environmental Protection Agency proposals give power plants more flexibility on coal waste. Shardell Joseph reports.

On Monday 4 November, the USA's Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed scaling back regulations on waste products from coal-fired power plants - a decision which has been criticised by several environmental groups who believe it will prolong the risk of toxic spills and water contamination. The proposals would relax two Obama-era rules from 2015 regarding the disposal of toxic wastewater and coal ash from power plants.

The EPA would ease restrictions around the disposal of coal ash, a common byproduct from burning coal-containing toxic materials, and coal plant wastewater. The rules introduced in 2015 were partly a response to the disastrous coal ash spill in Tennessee, 2008, which saw millions of cubic metres of toxic slurry dumped into local rivers.

However, in the latest EPA rule change, the agency announced that plants could have up to three more years in which to close unlined coal ash ponds, despite the risk that they could leak contaminants into the surrounding groundwater if not properly managed.

Furthering the Trump administration’s agenda to support the USA coal industry, the EPA estimated that the proposal would save the coal industry $175mln in compliance costs, and overall costs of $215mln per year. It also claimed that a voluntary incentive programme, part of the proposal, would reduce wastewater discharges by nearly 50 million kilograms a year.

The 2015 wastewater rule was expected to retain more than 600 million kilograms at an estimated to cost industry $489mln a year, but it was also believed to save significant amounts for the public, including lowering health costs.

The Utility Solid Waste Activities Group (USWAG), a consortium of around 80 utility operators and energy groups that petitioned reform to Obama-era rules, openly welcomed the proposal. 

‘The electric power industry is working to close coal ash basins in ways that put safety first, protect the environment, minimise impacts to communities, and manage costs for customers,’ said USWAG Executive Director, Jim Roewer. He claimed the agency was ‘recognising the technical challenges of meeting the deadline’, and praised a measure that would allow for ‘site-specific deadline extensions’.

Environmentalist groups, however, have criticised the proposal and stated that by relaxing the rules on coal ash and wastewater, the risks of polluting the groundwater are much higher.

‘The proposed rule not only weakens the protections against toxic pollutants in scrubber sludge and bottom ash wastewater, but also creates enormous carve-outs from even those lax standards,’ said Sierra Club Beyond Coal campaign member, Mary Anne Hitt. ‘Andrew Wheeler [EPA Administrator] and Donald Trump proved again today that they will put the drinking water of millions of Americans at risk.’

The amendments have been in the works since 2017, postponing changes the Obama-era rules implementation until 2020. The EPA said back then that it wanted to consider giving states more clarity and flexibility on how to deal with their coal ash sites.