EPA to Weaken Public Protections Against Toxic Coal Ash in Water
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will release several new rules in the coming weeks, many of which will relax regulations meant to protect the environment from industrial pollution. In a gift to the coal industry, the EPA will reverse course on regulations meant to reduce the amount of toxic heavy metals that leach into the water systems from the ash emitted by coal-fired power plants, according to The New York Times.
The New York Times broke the story from sources familiar with the EPA's plans. The Trump administration plans to weaken the 2015 rule that would have increased inspections and monitoring at coal-fired plants, lowered the amount of effluent plants could discharge, and required new technology to protect water supplies from coal ash contaminants. Not only will the new rules slacken some of those requirements, it will completely exempt a significant number of plants from complying with any of the requirements.
When the regulations were written, the Obama administration estimated oversight and new requirements would prevent around 1.4 billion pounds of toxic metals and pollutants from seeping into nearby rivers and streams. A source that knows the EPAs current plans told The New York Times that the new rules would actually remove more pollutants than the Obama-era rules. However, that math is based on having 30 percent of coal-fired plants voluntarily choosing to install new, expensive technology.
Those pollutants in drinking water can cause birth defects, cancer and stunted brain development in young children. Environmental groups quickly assailed the news of the regulatory rollback.
"[It's] "a huge step backward and incredibly dangerous," said Lisa Evans, general counsel for Earthjustice, to the The New York Times.
The move is ostensibly another deregulation to keep coal-fired plants from shutting down. Eight coal energy companies have already filed for bankruptcy this year as demand for coal energy plummets. Cleaner energy from renewables and natural gas has gotten cheaper and more efficient, making coal energy an unpalatable option in the marketplace.
The EPA is maneuvering to save a dying industry since the department's director, Andrew Wheeler, was a lobbyist for the coal industry. Energy analysts, however, told The New York Times that this latest rollback will not save the industry from its inevitable decline.
"While it might keep some existing coal plants running a little bit longer, it's at best a Band-Aid on a bullet wound that the market has sent the coal industry," said Joshua Rhodes, a senior energy analyst with Vibrant Clean Energy, to The New York Times.
The industry's record around toxic coal ash is abysmal. For years, it was not regulated, but spills in North Carolina and Tennessee that released billions of gallons of toxic sludge into waterways caused state and federal lawmakers to issue new rules over the containment of coal ash. A recent study also found that more than 90 percent of 265 coal-fired plants had unsafe levels of at least one contaminant in the groundwater near their coal ash dumps, as Reuters reported.
Environmental groups that keep tabs on the coal industry say that power plants discharge more than 1 billion pounds of pollutants every year into 4,000 miles of rivers. In turn, those pollutants contaminate the drinking water and fisheries of 2.7 million people, as The New York Times reported.
"That knowledge should lead E.P.A. to move to establish greater protections for our health," said Evans of Earthjustice to The New York Times. "But E.P.A. is running the other way under the direction of the utilities."
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Jean-Marc Neveu and Olivier Civil never expected to find themselves battling against disposable mask pollution.
When they founded their recycling start-up Plaxtil in 2017, it was textile waste they set their sights on. The project developed a process that turned fabrics into a new recyclable material they describe as "ecological plastic."
Mounting Piles of Waste<p>It is not only the streets of Chatellerault where pandemic pollution is piling-up, but also the world's beaches and oceans. Once there, they can take up to 450 years to degrade and disappear.</p><p>Esther Röling, co-organizer of the annual Adventure Clean Up Challenge held on Hong Kong Island, has seen this waste firsthand. In October the sports challenge pitted teams against one another in a competition to remove trash from 13 hard-to-reach coastal areas around the city.</p><p>They find tons of both disposable and reusable masks, said Röling. "You wonder how it ended up there. Was it just thrown on the ground? Or was it in a garbage bag that broke open?"</p><p>Almost 10,000 kilometers away in Antibes on the sunny French Riviera, it's a similar picture. For the past few months, divers and clean-up volunteers working with an ocean clean-up non-profit called Operation Mer Propre have been collecting an increasing number of masks found on land and in the sea.</p><p>"Since the beginning of the lockdown when we started to count, we've reached 800, 900, [and now in total] 1000 masks," said co-founder Joko Peltier. </p><p>According to <a href="https://unctad.org/news/growing-plastic-pollution-wake-covid-19-how-trade-policy-can-help" target="_blank">UN estimates</a>, up to 75% of all coronavirus-related plastic could end up as waste in oceans and landfills.</p>
The Limits of Recycling<p>Yet not all are convinced the recycling of this waste is possible on a global scale. </p><p>"What those citizen groups are doing is really beneficial but once they collect it, it should just go to a landfill or an incinerator. They shouldn't necessarily expect it to get recycled," said Jonathan Krones, an industrial ecologist and visiting assistant professor of environmental studies at Boston College.</p><p>That's because mask recycling programs like Plaxtil are few and far between and most don't have the benefit of a readily adaptable production process. </p><p>Even in countries with solid recycling infrastructure, he says, the system is designed to separate out specific types of waste like bottles or cardboard.</p><p>"I imagine that it would be technically feasible to develop a separation process to filter out masks, but there simply aren't enough of them to make that economical," he said.</p><p>Collection is a big hurdle, he adds. Since each mask only weighs a fraction of a gram and they're scattered on roads or mixed with other trash, it is difficult and costly. </p><p>"You need a lot of raw material of the right quality to make investing in the recycling technology and the recycling system worthwhile," he said.<span></span><br></p>
Hemp, Sugar Cane and Sustainable Alternatives<p>Some projects are instead addressing the material used to make masks.</p><p>French company Geochanvre have created a mask made primarily from hemp, while in Australia, researchers at the Queensland University of Technology are experimenting with a disposable product made from agricultural waste. </p><p>Biodegradable options are exciting alternatives to reduce the fossil fuels needed for the creation of plastic-based masks, said Krones, but they don't absolve the wearer from the responsibility of what happens afterwards. </p><p>Bio-based masks often need their own composing solutions, he explains, because in landfill they can produce high amounts of the greenhouse gas methane when anaerobic bacteria feeds on the organic material. Methane is known to be significantly more potent than carbon dioxide.</p><p>"I think as long as we have in our mind that we want to have disposability, we're going to have to wrestle with a variety of different sorts of environmental tradeoffs," he said, adding that reusable, fabric masks are the best option available to most people.</p><p>Precimask is developing a clear face covering with an optional visor made from hard plastic, designed to be long-lasting.<br></p><p>Air enters either side of the cheeks through a technology normally found in pool filters and car exhaust systems, said company spokeswoman Juliette Chambet.</p><p>"We wanted to make ceramic-based filters that would be washable and cleanable, which would allow them to be reused as many times as desired without having to buy a new consumable or produce waste," she said. </p><p>Ultimately, encouraging mask wearers to think about the entire lifecycle of a mask is key, explains Neveu. </p><p>"We want people who put on the masks to realize that they are also responsible for the waste, he said. "It's not inevitable that this [pandemic] will become an environmental catastrophe.</p><p><em>Reposted with permission from </em><em><a href="https://www.dw.com/en/covid-19-recycling-pollution-trash-pandemic/a-55707817" target="_blank">Deutsche Welle</a>.</em><a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/r/entryeditor/2649032193#/" target="_self"></a></p>
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