Environmental News for a Healthier Planet and Life

Trump Admin Weakens Obama-Era Rule to Limit Toxic Waste From Coal Plants

Trump Admin Weakens Obama-Era Rule to Limit Toxic Waste From Coal Plants
Trump looks on as EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler speaks during an event to unveil changes to the National Environmental Policy Act on Jan. 9, 2020 in Washington, DC. Drew Angerer / Getty Images

The Trump administration announced that it would roll back a rule from 2015 that was put in place to limit the amount of toxic chemicals that are in the wastewater of coal plants, according to The Washington Post.

The rule insisted that coal plants invest in newer technologies to treat their wastewater so toxic heavy metals like lead, selenium and arsenic are not leached into nearby rivers and streams where they can damage fragile ecosystems and also seep into drinking water, as The Washington Post reported.

The new regulations put forth by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which is run by Andrew Wheeler, a former lobbyist for the coal industry, allows coal plants to dial back their investment in new technologies; the regulations delay the date that plants needed to be in compliance, and they exempt some coal-fired plants from taking any corrective or pollution-limiting action, according to The New York Times.

The compliance date is pushed back to 2025 for some plants. The ones exempted from the rule are done so with the expectation that they will be retired by 2028.

The "effluent limitations" regulations that the EPA rolled out Monday will save the coal industry $140 million, according to Reuters.

"Newer, more affordable pollution control technologies and flexibility on the regulation's phase-in will reduce pollution and save jobs at the same time," said Wheeler, as Reuters reports.

The Obama administration had said that the 2015 rule would limit 1.4 billion pounds of toxic pollutants from entering U.S. waterways each year. Coal plants use scrubbers to capture mercury, sulfur dioxide and heavy metals that would be emitted through smoke stacks. That rule has been in place since the 1980s, but what to do with those trapped pollutants is a thorny issue. Coal plants had been allowed to dump them into nearby waterways until the 2015 rule took effect, according to The New York Times.

And yet, without evidence, the current EPA said it expects the same or even greater pollution reductions because coal plants will supposedly adopt the newer technologies voluntarily. The EPA's math is based on the assumption that 30 percent of coal plants will implement technologies that are beyond the regulations required by the EPA, according to The Guardian.

"It's clear from this rule that a relatively inexpensive treatment technology is available – the one that they made voluntary – that would eliminate the toxic contamination of drinking water supplies and is very affordable. And yet they did not require it," said Betsy Southerland, an Obama EPA water official, to The Guardian. "People should be very concerned."

Environmental activists quickly criticized the rule as a gift to the coal industry and a shortsighted measure that ignored the health of the wildlife and people that live near coal plants, according to The Washington Post.

Thomas Cmar, an attorney with Earthjustice, told The New York Times that the EPA's actions will allow older, dirtier coal plants to stay alive longer since they do not have to invest in upgrades.

"There are dozens of water bodies around the country where the local water is significantly impacted by this type of direct dumping of toxic metals from power plants," said Cmar to The Times.

Cmar said Earthjustice will attempt to stop the rollback in court.

"Giving coal companies a free pass to dump more toxic heavy metals like mercury and arsenic into our waters is a travesty," Brett Hartl, government affairs director for the Center for Biological Diversity, said in an email, to The Washington Post. "This shameless handout will allow greater amounts of these dangerous pollutants to be spewed directly into our waterways, threatening public health and pushing hundreds of aquatic endangered species, including salmon, sturgeon and hellbender salamanders, closer to extinction."

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