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Trump Administration Seeks to Gut Water Pollution Safeguards, Putting Communities at Risk

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Aerial photo of Duke Energy Coal Ash Spill. Wake Forest University Center for Energy, Environment & Sustainability

By Mary Anne Hitt

A Hollywood scriptwriter couldn't make this up. One day after new data revealed widespread toxic water contamination near coal ash disposal sites, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) head Scott Pruitt announced a proposal to repeal the very 2015 EPA safeguards that had required this data to be tracked and released in the first place. Clean water is a basic human right that should never be treated as collateral damage on a corporate balance sheet, but that is exactly what is happening.


This proposal clears the way for polluters, and polluter-funded politicians, to write weak standards for groundwater monitoring and coal ash cleanups, and attacks several core health and environmental protections included in the standard that was enacted in 2015. This comes as the first round of water testing, carried out under the new EPA standard, revealed some shocking results. As the New Republic reported:

"At more than 70 sites across the country, toxins like arsenic, mercury, and radium are leaching into groundwater from pond-like storage pits filled with the sludgy leftovers of coal burning. That's the most alarming takeaway from reports that the coal industry was required to submit to the Environmental Protection Agency this month, part of the first-ever federal regulations of the waste product known as coal ash ... So far, the reports have shown coal ash leaking into groundwater at storage sites in Iowa, Nebraska, Arkansas, Georgia, Montana, Washington, Michigan and Florida."

Coal ash is the toxic waste left over from coal-burning power plants and contains some of some of the deadliest known toxic chemicals, including heavy metals like arsenic, lead, mercury, and chromium. For decades, coal ash disposal was subject to no EPA oversight, and this waste was dumped into giant unlined pits, where toxic chemicals then seeped into water and soil and blew into the air in many communities nationwide. Exposure to these toxics raise the risk for cancer, heart disease, and stroke, and can inflict permanent brain damage on children.

Pruitt's latest proposal would replace science-based federal requirements that would fairly and consistently address water quality issues nationwide with a patchwork of state-by-state requirements that can easily be influenced by polluter interests. And yet federal requirements were put in place because state regulators had not implemented adequate water protections against coal ash! In reality, state oversight failed families for decades, resulting in catastrophic spills like those in Kingston, Tennessee, and the Dan River in North Carolina, as well as slow-motion disasters still unfolding in dozens of communities nationwide. My colleague Connie Wilbert in Wyoming is worried about exactly that, as she expressed in this article:

"We aren't seeing the state take a strong position on any number of issues related to fossil fuels in general," said Wilbert, director of Sierra Club Wyoming. "This proposed revision introduces a level of flexibility that we're pretty uncomfortable with."

I recently spent time with families in North Carolina that have been living on bottled water for over 1,000 days due to coal ash pollution, rallying outside the headquarters of Duke Energy and calling on the company to clean up their mess. The stories of these families were heartbreaking, and they aren't alone. Today, more than 1,400 coal ash waste dumps are spread across the nation, and in at least 200 cases, the toxic waste is known to have contaminated water sources. More than 1.5 million children live near coal ash storage sites. Seventy percent of all coal ash impoundments disproportionately impact low-income communities.

The EPA's 2015 coal ash protections were basic common sense—they required utilities to test the water near their coal ash dumps to make sure hazardous chemicals were not leaking into drinking water sources. Requirements to monitor the water around dump sites—and to clean it up, if poisoned—went into effect at all coal ash dumps in 2018, and as noted above, the first round of findings from these reports was horrifying.

Further proving the point of just how terrible this idea is, the first state to take back the reins of managing its own coal ash is Pruitt's home state of Oklahoma, which has an abysmal and notorious track record that ThinkProgress described this way:

"In the eastern part of Oklahoma, near the Arkansas border, sits a small town named Bokoshe. Along with a population of just 512, Bokoshe also happens to be home to several old coal mines, which have been turned into landfills for another sort of coal product: coal ash, the toxic byproduct that results from burning coal ... For more than 20 years, residents of the town, plagued by high rates of asthma and cancer, have appealed to state and federal regulators for help. And for years those pleas have gone largely unheard, thanks to the complex web of regulations that address—or more often, fail to properly address—coal ash."

This is the legacy Pruitt's proposal will leave for dozens more communities. We will fight it in the streets and in the courts, to prevent it from being finalized. He and the Trump administration are trying to pull the wool over the American people's eyes about the dangers of gutting our clean water protections against coal ash, so that rich coal magnates will not have to pay to properly dispose of their toxic byproduct.

Weakening protections against coal ash is a betrayal of all the families across this country who have been living on bottled water for years, or have lost their health and property, due to coal ash pollution. Families are looking to EPA to solve the coal ash problem—not abandon them.

The EPA will take comments on this proposal until April 30 and will hold a hearing on these rollbacks in the Washington, DC area on April 24. Please join us in letting Scott Pruitt know that the American people won't stand for this polluter power grab.

Mary Anne Hitt is the director of the Sierra Club Beyond Coal Campaign.

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