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EPA rolls back Obama-era coal ash regulations

As one of his first major acts as acting director of the US Environmental Protection Agency, Andrew Wheeler signed an...

Posted: Jul 19, 2018 12:02 AM

As one of his first major acts as acting director of the US Environmental Protection Agency, Andrew Wheeler signed and finalized new standards overseeing coal ash, the leftover waste created by power plants that burn coal. The new rules are a revision of 2015 regulations that were put into place by the Obama administration after two significant industrial coal ash spills.

Signed into rules on Wednesday, the new regulations put more authority back in the hands of industry and states to regulate their own waste. For example, states can tailor disposal requirements to specific sites. They also "provide states and utilities much-needed flexibility in the management of coal ash, while ensuring human health and the environment are protected," Wheeler said in a statement. "Our actions mark a significant departure from the one-size-fits-all policies of the past and save tens of millions of dollars in regulatory costs."

There are over 1,000 coal ash ponds across the country

Coal ash is the waste left after burning coal and contains heavy metals associated with cancer

Prior to joining the EPA as second-in-command of the agency in April this year, Wheeler was a lobbyist with Faegre Baker Daniels consulting, where one of his clients was Murray Energy, "the country's largest underground coal mining company." According to his recusal statement, he also represented a number of other energy companies, including Energy Fuels Resources Inc, Growth Energy, and Xcel Energy. In that statement, Wheeler said he would abstain from participating in any decisions involving former clients for the next two years.

Energy industry groups have been actively trying to revise the standards since President Trump came into office. The Utility Solids Waste Activities Group, an industry organization representing more than 110 utility groups, sent a petition to the agency challenging the 2015 regulations on coal ash containment. It called the regulations too rigorous and costly.

According to the petition, the rule resulted "in significant economic and operational impacts to coal-fired power generation," claiming that it was such a burden that "the economic viability of coal-fired power plants is jeopardized."

Industry trade groups such as the Edison Electric Institute previously argued that proposed changes to the standards weren't a rollback, but rather, a way to better tailor to the needs of each site. "We believe (states) are in a better spot to look at local issues. The folks at the state regulatory agencies have a much better feel for the issues at hand," Edison Electric Institute's Jim Roewer, who is also the executive director of the Utility Solid Waste Activities Group.

In a statement from the Utility Solid Waste Activities Group, Roewer said "this action provides the regulatory certainty needed to make investment decisions to ensure compliance and the continued protection of health and the environment."

The EPA said more of the previously proposed changes to the 2015 coal ash rules will be addressed later, and additional changes will be proposed, as well.

Environmental advocates said the new rules are a gift to industry.

"This administration is granting the wishes of the lobbyists and the lawyers for the coal ash utilities and is turning its back on the families and communities across America that are suffering the consequences of primitive coal ash disposal," said Frank Holleman, a senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center.

Coal ash is one of the most-generated forms of industrial waste in the country. According to the American Coal Ash Association, about 110 million tons are generated each year. About half of all coal ash produced in the United States is recycled into construction materials such as concrete or wallboard; it makes these materials stronger. However, that leaves about 50 million tons of coal ash that need to be disposed of every year.

Historically, when coal was burned, plants would send the ash out of smokestacks, creating dark plumes of smoke. Now, scrubbers and filters collect much of the ash. It may not escape into the air anymore, but it does have to go somewhere. Traditionally, power plants mixed the leftover ash with water and sluiced it into unlined pits, where the ash would settle to the bottom.

Sometimes, these ponds were dug into the groundwater table -- water that can be pulled up by private drinking wells, or that eventually makes its way into drinking water. Many of these sites also sit along the banks of rivers, lakes and streams, separating waste from waters with nothing more than earthen banks.

According to the EPA, there are over 1,000 coal ash disposal sites across the country, many of them constructed in the 1950s and 1960s, well before any sort of regulations.

Holleman, the Southern Environmental Law Center attorney, said he can't imagine a more precarious way to manage this waste.

"Millions of tons of industrial waste directly on the banks of major drinking water reservoirs that serve hundreds of thousands of people," he said, "that's a recipe for disaster."

In the past decade, there have been two major coal ash spills in the US. In 2008, a break in a dam at the Tennessee Valley Authority's Kingston power plant sent over a billion gallons of coal ash cascading into the Clinch River. The black sludge blanketed over 300 acres, inundating the area around Kingston, Tennessee. The spill destroyed three homes and damaged a dozen others. Scientists found fish contaminated with high levels of arsenic and selenium months after the spill.

Mississippi Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 261167

Reported Deaths: 5713
CountyCasesDeaths
DeSoto17561191
Hinds16687329
Harrison14050202
Rankin11102217
Jackson10729188
Lee9014143
Madison8495168
Jones6607114
Forrest6135122
Lauderdale6067192
Lowndes5490120
Lafayette511794
Lamar499865
Washington4904125
Bolivar4087109
Oktibbeha403581
Panola380981
Pontotoc374757
Monroe3651106
Warren3649103
Union353263
Marshall352069
Neshoba3464154
Pearl River3422105
Leflore3090109
Lincoln304287
Sunflower290373
Hancock288461
Tate279062
Alcorn270754
Pike268180
Itawamba266662
Scott256048
Yazoo253756
Prentiss251153
Copiah247649
Tippah247550
Coahoma245954
Simpson241471
Leake236167
Grenada222471
Marion220273
Covington219072
Adams212370
Wayne208432
Winston205870
George203539
Newton197346
Attala196461
Tishomingo193861
Chickasaw188444
Jasper177838
Holmes171368
Clay164237
Tallahatchie155635
Stone149525
Clarke144762
Calhoun139922
Smith127725
Yalobusha121134
Walthall114037
Greene112929
Noxubee112225
Montgomery111236
Carroll106422
Lawrence105617
Perry104031
Amite100826
Webster95424
Tunica88221
Claiborne87825
Jefferson Davis87727
Benton84823
Humphreys84224
Kemper80020
Quitman7049
Franklin69617
Choctaw62513
Wilkinson59625
Jefferson56520
Sharkey44817
Issaquena1606
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Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Cases: 436087

Reported Deaths: 6486
CountyCasesDeaths
Jefferson63969994
Mobile31211565
Madison27851208
Tuscaloosa21233271
Montgomery19698326
Shelby19093130
Baldwin16981188
Lee13036105
Morgan12526134
Etowah11987179
Calhoun11441206
Marshall10357123
Houston8886158
Limestone827876
Cullman8203108
Elmore8120104
DeKalb7828103
Lauderdale7798103
St. Clair7763125
Talladega6394111
Walker6002177
Jackson594644
Colbert545276
Blount543986
Autauga532761
Coffee456762
Dale406883
Franklin372448
Russell349212
Chilton342873
Covington336068
Escambia330144
Dallas312096
Tallapoosa3120107
Chambers301170
Clarke293336
Pike261131
Marion251558
Lawrence250752
Winston232742
Bibb221248
Geneva208746
Marengo206529
Pickens199031
Hale182742
Barbour179337
Fayette177029
Butler172459
Cherokee164330
Henry158224
Monroe151320
Randolph144336
Washington140127
Clay129146
Crenshaw122944
Macon120937
Cleburne120724
Lamar119721
Lowndes113736
Wilcox106622
Bullock102228
Perry99118
Conecuh96821
Sumter90026
Greene76823
Coosa63215
Choctaw51724
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