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Trump EPA Opens a New Assault on Obama-Era Coal Ash Rule, Threatening Public Health

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A 2014 coal ash spill on Dan River in Virginia.
A 2014 coal ash spill on Dan River in Virginia.
Photo: AP

Coal ash is arguably some of the worst pollution out there. A byproduct of coal production, coal ash is usually made up of heavy metals like lead, mercury, and arsenic, which are all dangerous to human health. A report earlier this year found that most of these sites are already leaking into groundwater, a huge problem in the making.

Despite the risks, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced a proposal on Tuesday to remove a key threshold requiring companies and utilities to prove that any coal ash deposit that weighs at least 12,400 tons wouldn’t result in environmental harm. Instead, companies would only need to prove a project is safe if the coal ash is being dumped near a wetland, unstable area, or other location-based factors under the new proposal. There are just a few problems with that.


The proposal, however, doesn’t offer any clear guidelines on what counts as near enough to trigger an environmental analysis or what agency or office is responsible for overseeing these determinations. In the past, companies had to do an environmental analysis for any coal ash storage project that weighed at least 12,400 tons. Now? Who the fuck knows. In essence, the proposal removes coal ash protections for community, Betsy Southerland, an Obama era director of science and technology for the EPA’s Office of Water.


That’s been a hallmark of the Trump’s EPA all along, though. The Obama administration passed a major federal coal ash rule back in 2015. But industry and utilities were quick to petition the Trump administration to change the rule once it took over, and the president’s been listening.

Last year, the EPA gave states the power to decide what level of environmental pollution would trigger some type of enforcement mechanism, as well as allow some coal ash ponds to remain open a year more than the Obama-era rule demanded. While some states like Illinois—which just passed a bill to clean up this pollution—will use this power to set more rigorous guidelines, we can’t expect the same from others.

“In 2019, [the EPA is] continuing the weakening,” Southerland told Earther.

This latest EPA proposal also proposes treating temporary, off-site piles of coal ash the way it treats the rest of the coal ash. These off-site piles are usually destined for a landfill (like from Puerto Rico to a Florida landfill, for instance) or to be recycled (into concrete, for example, which has led to its own issues). Many coal ash piles are stored offsite from the coal plants that created the waste, so they’ve historically been regulated differently. The new proposal, however, doesn’t give a definition of what counts as temporary, Southerland noted. It also doesn’t offer clear information on how these piles will be treated if they present environmental harm.


“I think what everyone is concerned about is there are a number of things the agency could’ve focused on that would’ve made things more stringent,” Southerland said.

The agency did offer some improvements to make monitoring data from these facilities more publicly accessible. But that’s a small win in the face of everything else the Trump administration has done in relation to this rule. These coal ash sites already threaten public health, and less regulation won’t solve that problem.