- The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit on Tuesday sided with conservationists who said Obama-era rules governing coal ash storage did not go far enough to protect the public, while rejecting industry claims that the rule went too far.
- Multiple lawsuits were filed in 2015 when the coal ash rule was finalizing, including claims by both industry and environmentalists. The court concluded the rule did not require sufficient protections for unlined and partially-lined pits, and that some storage facilities had been improperly exempted.
- Last month the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a final rule weakening coal ash protections and granting more flexibility to industry and states. According to Earthjustice, however, the court's ruling this week could undermine the Trump administration's rollback attempt.
Critics of the the Trump administration's environmental policy have viewed the recent actions as an attempt to revive ailing coal plants. The EPA's final rule would allow some coal ash ponds to remain open until October 2020 — past the previous April 2019 deadline. And only this week, the administration released EPA's new Affordable Clean Energy (ACE) plan, replacing the Clean Power Plan.
With the exception of a few issues the judges exempted from litigation, such as recycling thresholds for coal waste, Tuesday's ruling was a sweeping win for environmentalists. Not only did the judges reject industry claims that the original rule went too far, they concluded the rules were not sufficient in addressing unlined and clay-lined pits.
The court found that the coal ash rule's approach of relying on leak detection followed by facility closure "does not address the identified health and environmental harms ... Moreover, the EPA has not shown that harmful leaks will be promptly detected; that, once detected, they will be promptly stopped; or that contamination, once it occurs, can be remedied."
"The timing of this decision could not be more ironic," Larissa Liebmann, an attorney for the Waterkeeper Alliance, said in a statement issued by Earthjustice for several groups.
The groups said in their statement that Tuesday's court decision "casts serious doubt on the legality of those revision."
The three-member court ordered EPA to revise the rule to sufficiently address the environmental threats posed by coal waste sites. The court found the EPA rule did not go far enough in addressing unlined and clay-lined ponds, and improperly exempted coal ash ponds at closed power plants from regulation.
Jennifer Peters, National Water Programs Director for Clean Water Action, said the court's decision is a message to the federal government that it has a responsibility to set stringent rules for the coal ash facilities.
"The Court made it clear that EPA has a responsibility to protect people and communities by addressing the threats coal ash dumps pose to our health and environment," Peters said. "This ruling makes Trump's EPA's attempt to gut standards that reduce toxic coal ash contamination even more outrageous."
The environmental groups say the decision will impact waste sites across the country — of which there are more than 1,400. About 70% of those are located near low-income communities, they say.